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Paper dolls, flow and the art of … whatever!

7 Nov

I first penned this essay back in 2008, but never published it myself. This is a slightly edited version to bring it up to the current date. Pottery by Cindi Cusick; digital painting by Kathleen Farago May.

UnknownIn his best-selling 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-high-ee”) defined and explored the concept of “flow” as our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement. Flow, whether in creative arts, athletic competition, engaging work or spiritual practice, is a deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed, and triumph over limitation.

Csikszentmihalyi gives me a form of self-confidence through his concept of “flow” that I confess I never gained from the term “art.” As a society, we tend to think of “art” as primarily the creative arts – music, visual art forms and creative writing being the three that most readily come to mind. But those of us not blessed with talent in one of these areas are often left feeling like the ugly duckling or the Cinderella in a world full of artistically graced swans and stepsisters.

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From childhood, I recall the many lessons (piano, ballet, tap, violin and voice) my mother was enterprising enough to involve me in – all of which gave me my true appreciation for music, but none of which “stuck” in the sense that I ever felt from them “optimal fulfillment and engagement.” Instead, I felt sick on the curvy roads to and from the lessons, mortal fear at recitals, self-consciousness about my too-thin body at dance reviews, and basically overwhelmed by what I call the perfectionist’s script for self-defeat: with so many things to do, how could I ever do any one thing well?

simplicity-8153To escape from the pressure, I’d retreat to my bedroom where hundreds of paper dolls waited to come to life under my direction. Silly as it sounds, for an only child with a vivid imagination, the world of girls and boys cut out from Simplicity magazine – evenly matched in size and each with his or her own intricately developed emotional and psychological makeup, set of academic skills, and personal history – was the key to power. This game cast me as the director, organizer and creator. I set up detailed schedules for each person and then watched with glee as my random schedule-making schemes placed Janice in a science class with Tom, a boy she had a crush on, or Jeff in choir with Candy, a girl he had broken up with and no longer wished to see.

il_340x270.661762228_od2hAside from the social element, students gained skills that helped them determine their future careers; they made friends who would be with them for life, and siblings supported each other through difficult family issues. So empowering was this “flow” that I played with these dolls long past the “appropriate” age, and can vividly recall nervously throwing the covers down to hide all my dolls in their classrooms (individual squares on a quilt, actually) when my father unexpectedly knocked on my door when I stayed home from school with a cold as a high school freshman.

That very year, another form of flow superseded that of the dolls. My English teacher, Debby Douglas, was handing me back my umpteenth paper marked with an A++ and she must have seen something in my face that betrayed a certain disappointment and realized that I needed encouragement that defied expectation; I was used to getting these A’s no matter what I did. “Other students get A’s,” she said, “but you need to understand that what you do is in a whole other category: this is something you do like no one else. You should really pursue it.” From that moment on, I had my flow. I knew where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do – the world revolved around words, writing, communication: that was my music, my “art.”

And yet, still that word “art” did it’s best to make me feel left out. Because, save for bad lyrics written during some romantic squabble, I was never a creative writer. In college, I won contests for critical/analytical essays dissecting the language of Spencer and Shakespeare poems, short stories by Hemingway – even the lyrics of songs by Joni Mitchell. I was a nerdy writer, while those around me were poets, painters and potters, violinists, vocalists and artistic visionaries.

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And then one day, years later, when I had my own business as a freelance writer, I decided to face the challenge. I knew I’d envied my friends who were musicians and artists too long. But why? Was it because I had not yet found that “deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed and triumph over limitation”? “What is my art?” I asked myself. What is it that truly puts me into the world of “flow”? My writing did it, yes. But often, in order to make a buck, I was forced to write about topics for which I held no real passion. So what was my passion? How could I make a difference?

It was then that I remembered the paper dolls. And through a good, hard look at the nature of that experience, I realized that I had not just been playing a game; I’d been grooming myself, teaching myself, preparing myself for my future contributions to the world. My true gift was bringing people together, connecting and directing them to do great things, allowing them to support one another, and providing them a means to learn their true callings.

This realization took a shape that rapidly sprung to life in the form of a non-profit organization, Greater Opportunities for Women, to help low-income women in Kentucky learn about their talents and develop better job skills while supporting one another in a group, attending classes together for ten weeks. While developing and implementing this complex program, I felt like “an artist” in the truest sense, staying up all night in a rush of inspiration to finish creating an aspect of this intricately detailed work. I was like the conductor of a symphony, directing a team of volunteers to work together to pull off complex pieces of the “music” that I could not perform alone. It was near the end of my four-year endeavor that my dear friend Paul Ramey pointed out that unlike that of a writer, musician or visual artist, my social form of art was four-dimensional because it touched the realm of possibility and actualized people to realize their dreams.

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Once when one of the 60 women who attended the program decided to drop out, my mother remarked, “Unlike the paper dolls, GO Women don’t always stay where you put them.” Always perceptive, my mother hit the nail on the head with this statement. And ultimately, control freak that I was, perhaps that’s why I eventually handed the executive director role off to someone else. Perhaps I just couldn’t maintain that level of artistic intensity for longer than four years; after all, artists have their “periods.” But I probably learned more from the adventure than anyone else; I learned that art, for me, is whatever gets me “in the flow,” whatever challenges me to go beyond my limits, and to excel and triumph in new ways.

Today I have the privilege to work in publishing, bringing my writing, editing and organizational skills to bear on a variety of publications, both in print and online. I feel that familiar sense of optimal fulfillment and engagement when I am organizing materials for a story, writing e-mails to sources explaining the kind of quote I need from them, helping another editor create a framework for their publication, or proofreading a magazine to ensure it is as error-free as possible. I love working with words, I always have, and this is what gets me in Csikszentmihalyi’s flow. This is my art.

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Watching my fiancé, John, build our new house, and hearing his thought processes as he develops his plans, reminds me precisely of the mental steps I go through to create an essay or an article. I can tell he is entering into his flow when he is planning to build, and fully immersed in it while carrying out those plans. It’s a joy to experience.

I will never cease to be inspired by friends who deliver truly creative writing, stirring pieces of music and awesome visual arts that communicate a unique personality and artistic sensitivity. I know carvers, dancers, quilt makers, film directors, photographers, potters and pianists, gourd painters and guitarists, sculptors, singers and songwriters – who all make me feel awe and amazement. But I am just as inspired by those who express their art in non-traditional ways. One friend creates art through yoga, another through massage. I know beekeepers, camp directors, financial analysts, hair dressers and hikers, mentors and mothers, pastors and pharmacists, who all make an art of what they create when in their flow. Some even make an art out of helping others to die gracefully and with dignity.

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“Come, my friends. ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” These words from Tennyson’s Ulysses, some of the few that stick in memory from my studies in English Literature, continue to send chills up my spine each time I hear them. Just as Ulysses rallied around him his old sailing buddies to go upon a new, and perhaps final, quest, we are never too old to set out on a new voyage, and see the world in a different way than we ever could before.

We all have to challenge ourselves to go beyond our limits – limits we have largely, though often unwittingly, set for ourselves. Whatever challenges you, whatever you wish that you could do, but fear you can’t – I encourage you to give it a try. You might just become a new kind of artist – with a whole new sense of flow.

Watch a neat video about flow.

Editors, the conductors of the publishing world

6 Mar

I was recently asked by a potential employer to describe the editor’s role within the publishing process. I immediately thought of Swiss conductor Mario Venzago, former Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Music Director.

mariovenzago001_webEach time I have attended a performance by a symphony orchestra, most memorably those directed by Venzago, I have sat through most of it in tears. Whether Bruckner or Wagner, Schubert or Liszt, Dvorák or Ravel, the music always moves me deeply. But the emotion comes more from the fact of identifying so strongly with the conductor, and seeing what he does as the quintessential metaphor for what I do, and what others do, when we are editors in every sense of the word.

We put it all together. We choose the material. We set the pace. We communicate and network with all the community stakeholders involved. We choose the players we feel can contribute the most effectively to our ensemble.

We coach others on minute details of their style and performance and somehow keep them feeling not criticized, but motivated because we are working together for something greater than us.

mariovenzago003_minWe hear and see the big picture of how everything needs to come together in the giant whole of a publication. And yet we orchestrate every single detail of everyone on the team pulling together to make it all happen as perfectly as possible.

We cross t’s and dot i’s a lot of the time. But we also plan, prod, goad, think at 20,000 feet so others can focus on smaller parts, coach, mentor, teach, challenge others to reach their potential, juggle all the balls at once – all the while keeping time for the entire group.

Even now, having gone several years without seeing Venzago in action, without hearing the product of his amazing vision in the musical realm, I’m still stirred and motivated by remembering the times I was in his audience. And although he was released unexpectedly and inexplicably from his duties in Indianapolis, I know I join throngs of others in wishing him well as he continues to inspire those fortunate enough to see and hear him in Newcastle, Bern and beyond.

mariovenzago004Not long after being asked to reflect on the editor’s role, I attended a networking luncheon in Asheville, North Carolina. After everyone took turns delivering one-minute introductions, a woman came up to me and provided the name and e-mail address of someone she knew in publishing. “He might not be much help, though,” she said. “He’s just an editor.”

Just an editor? No, I thought. No one is just an editor. Our role is akin to that of Socrates, whom Plato described in his Apology as having said, “I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, all day long… arousing and persuading and reproaching… You will not easily find another like me.”

Perhaps like Mario Venzago, I continue to be amazed at our current economy and life’s unexpected crescendos and diminuendos. But in the face of uncertainty, and when I wonder what comes next, I know one thing, and that is that I am proud to be an editor.

We are the conductors, the visionaries, the directors and the gracious gadflies of the publishing world.

Learn more about Mario Venzago.

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Changes are shifting outside the world*

9 Jan

As a student of English Literature, I learned that for a narrative work of any kind to be truly engaging, the main character has to undergo a change.

imagesIn the terminology of dramatic structure, going all the way back to Aristotle, there is a climax or turning point that marks a change – for better or the worse – in the protagonist’s affairs. Consider the Shakespeare plays you recall: In the comedies, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, things had gone badly for the character up to this point, and now the tide will turn and things will get better. In the tragedies, like Hamlet or Othello, the opposite occurs, and events shift from good to bad at the climax.

Of course, by the time we learn about this literary device, we’ve already been exposed to it many times, from the earliest fairy tales and stories that were read to us as very young children on up through just about every form of entertainment that is a part of our particular age group’s contemporary culture. We can all name our favorites: I recall being enchanted by Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and Great Expectations.

images-3As adults, whether we love fiction, theater, opera or rock-n-roll, we are most inspired by those works of art in which a transformation occurs. I will find myself quite bored by films in which the main character never “gets it” and conversely reduced to tears by those in which the change the protagonist undergoes is portrayed in a startlingly realistic way. Some random examples of favorite films are The Razor’s Edge, The Darjeeling Limited, Sally Potter’s Yes, and most recently, Jack Goes Boating. Similarly the music which affects me most profoundly – penned by artists like Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, James McMurtry, Jeff Tweedy, Steve Earle and Vic Chesnutt, just to name a few – does so through its ability to portray characters realizing something transformational.

Joseph Campbell took the Greek notion of dramatic structure a step further to define the common plot element in all stories as the hero’s journey. In any narrative, things are going along routinely, and then the main character is faced with an upheaval of some kind in which all he thought was stable has now changed, requiring him to rise to the occasion and fight a dragon of some sort or another, usually representing a personal fear. It is through this battle that transformation occurs and the hero emerges a new, better, stronger person than before. Think Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Castaway, Avatar, the list goes on and on.

62463I recently watched a film called Finding Joe that expounds Campbell’s hero’s journey concept. It does this through interviews with a dozen or so articulate speakers who have achieved greatness, some well known and others who worked quietly behind-the-scenes to accomplish successful projects. “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.” This quote, which might as well be Campbell’s tagline, is one of the main ideas behind this uplifting film, from which you’ll come away feeling like an esteemed squad of cheerleaders including Deepak Chopra, Mick Fleetwood and Laird Hamilton is rooting for you personally.

But to witness another person taking on the ultimate hero’s journey leaves us empty, mystified and lost – because when the final dragon is met and fought with, the essence of what the person was here in this realm of form actually seems to leave us, nevermore to return.

In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle writes, “The weakening or dissolution of form, whether through old age, illness, disability, loss, or some kind of personal tragedy, carries great potential for spiritual awakening – the dis-identification of consciousness from form. Since there is very little spiritual truth in our contemporary culture, not many people recognize this as an opportunity, and so when it happens to them or someone close to them, they think there is something dreadfully wrong, something that should not be happening.”

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Trying to come to some terms with my mother’s death over the past five months has been like trying to wake up after being heavily sedated. One is so overwhelmed with the grieving process that it’s like being mired in physical, psychological and emotional quicksand. After many months of struggling just to get through each quagmire of a day, finally, strangely, you begin to process emotions and information like yourself again.

A few weeks ago, I was driving through the woods at sunset feeling as if I had been a victim of amnesia and was trying to remember something about who I had been before. It was like hearing snatches of a melody and parts of a lyric hovering just below the mind’s surface, almost reachable and yet, still distant.*

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After chasing my ethereal thoughts for roughly a 24-hour period, a revelation of sorts began to emerge from the clouds, like mist rising from a mountain ridge. It was slowly dawning on me that just because I can no longer see and hear and feel my mom doesn’t mean she is not still on her journey.

Separate wholly from any learned connection between death and religion, the simple truth becoming less and less dim was that, given our limits of understanding, there is no reason to believe the changes do not go on. Changes are very likely still shifting outside the world as we know it.

As Tolle explains, during illness and finally in death, “what is lost on the level of form is gained on the level of essence.”

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The night my mother died, I awoke from a deep sleep having heard some sound in our shared room. When I reached her, she was unconscious but still living. And then I experienced something I never could have anticipated. Her essence, what some would call her spirit, left her body and very rapidly spread out around me with a palpable aliveness. It is impossible to describe this because I didn’t see or hear it or even feel it. (I was actually quite devoid of emotion at the moment it occurred.) I simply experienced it. And when it was over, her body had become a shell, not unlike that of an insect. Her essence went on. It was tangibly not trapped in the shell, which had died.

From that point on, I knew that to honor my mother was no longer to look at or touch her body, for it was no longer her. And so I sat near the body for only a short time, and then left the room and did not watch when it was carried out of our house.

Mother had fought the ultimate dragon; she had faced her fear and gone through the consummate change. Or had she?

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The way we experience time in this realm of form brings a horrible finality to this type of separation from someone we love. But, we need not lose interest in the plot as we might do when watching a movie where no transformation seems to be occurring. Change can still be going on – and who are we to say that it couldn’t be? Maybe the essence that used to appear in the form of my mother finally found the doors where before there had been only walls. For all I know, Mom is now on some level of the hero’s journey that is beyond my comprehension.

My continued closeness to her essence gives me the impression that changes are indeed shifting outside this world and that she is still learning, growing and changing as she has always done.

Nature photography courtesy of Nathaniel J. Miller. Computer generated paintings by Kathleen Farago May.

*The title of this essay is an intentional misquote from the song No More I Love You’s in which the lyric actually reads, “Changes are shifting outside the words.” The Annie Lennox cover of the song written by Joseph Hughes and David Freeman provides the very personal aural backdrop against which this essay was conceived.

Songs of a new order

4 Oct

My mother gave me many gifts, one of the most treasured being the sensibility to appreciate the artistic marriage of music and words. Those who were able to attend her funeral heard an array of classical, traditional and contemporary compositions that were chosen and put in order by her – not recently, but years before she passed. She included on her program (which she helped to design and approved just before her death) some special lyrics from a hymn she loved, Lead, Kindly Light.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now, lead Thou me on;
I loved the garish day, and spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; Remember not past years.

Music became a part of my grieving and my mourning even during the long night spent clearing and cleaning immediately after Mother’s body had been taken from our house. For several days I could only find solace in the offerings of Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian singer songwriter I’ve always loved for his ability to write about spiritual matters from a Christian foundation moderated by a cultural perspective that does not diminish others of the world’s religions. I chose to place some of his lyrics from the song The Rose Above the Sky on the back of Mother’s program:

Something jeweled slips away
Round the next bend with a splash
Laughing at the hands I hold out
Only air within their grasp
All you can do is praise the razor
For the fineness of the slash

Some weeks ago, I was able to get out the tiny tape recorder that I kept near the piano for the times when Mom could sit there and allow some of her favorite pieces to fly from her weakened fingers. I listened one whole afternoon to the scattered recordings I’d made, remembering the joy that overwhelmed me each time I heard her play once again when I had begun to doubt she would make it back to the bench. On some of those occasions, she would play My God and I, which was sung by a friend at her service according to her plan.

My God and I go in the field together;
We walk and talk as good friends should and do;
We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter;
My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue.

A few weeks (maybe even a few days) before Mother passed away, she had just finished playing the piano when she asked me a painful question: “Do you think there is any way that I can possibly get better?” As I was trying to formulate my response, I thought immediately of Cindy Bullens and her CD Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth.

I don’t remember how I learned of Bullens and the 1999 album of 10 songs she recorded as a tribute to her 11-year-old daughter who died of cancer – but the work has long been an inspiration. The genre is light progressive rock, influenced by the likes of Carol King, Joni Mitchell, Heart and the Indigo Girls. Lucinda Williams and Bonnie Raitt make small contributions to a couple of the songs. But it’s the introspective lyrics in combination with the poignant melodies that give this work its ability to help anyone who is mourning. Bullens unabashedly carries the listener through the various stages of grief, with tangible examples like a trip to Paris seeming dull in comparison to memories of her daughter and the impossible hope that a scientific discovery like finding water on the moon can somehow mean young Jessie will find her way back to earth.

With Bullens and her acute loss in mind, my answer to my mother took the form of another question: “What if there was an 11-year-old child here, whom we loved, and who had cancer – and we knew she was going to die? What if she asked us this question? How could we answer her?” I then told my mom that it was time for her to practice what she preached, and to talk to God, in her own way, so that she could prepare for where she was going. I told her, in effect, to let go of the things of this world, and to begin to look forward to the next.

And now it is me who is left here trying to let go – of her. It’s hard when your mom was cool, was someone you hung out with, loved the things you loved, understood human nature in all its flawed nuances and exercised her sharp language skills and dry sense of humor up until a few hours before she took her last breath. It’s hard when you’re a relentless perfectionist constantly plagued with feelings that you could have done more, should have done better as a caregiver. It’s hard living right where it all went down, the set and setting for our last two years together. And it’s hard when a relatively non-material girl has an accumulation of 81 years of sentimentally charged high-caliber material possessions to sort through, deciding what to keep, and doling out the rest as best she can to those who will appreciate them as much as Ruthe did.

But one of the lessons I have learned from my grief is that if I can do some good now for others around me, then Mother lives on… because in some way I become her as I move forward.

And move forward I have decided to do. I have the beautiful house we shared in Winchester, Kentucky up for sale, and whether it sells in two weeks or two years, I am soon headed to the mountains of Western North Carolina to seek work and a new beginning. When my father was working at Ridgecrest Baptist Conference Center outside of Asheville the summer he was courting my mom, he took her on several memorable hikes; she even made it up the strenuous trail to Catawba Falls, which is no small feat. They loved the mountain forests there – and so do I.

Another lesson I have learned from my grief is this: When someone dies, there is a shifting and a shuffling that happens in preparation for the “new order” left behind. To use a baseball analogy (and I did go to a Reds game last month in honor of Mom), when one player is out of the game, the lineup changes. Since losing Mom, I have gotten closer to some folks I’d never really known before, including some of her close friends and members of our extended family who’ve come forward to lend support. Even among my own close friends, the shifting and shuffling is apparent; new bonds are formed as everyone rallies to take a position that will not only offer me strength, but also allow for growth that somehow just wouldn’t have been possible before.

True, like the protagonist in Gillian Welch’s traditional-sounding song Orphan Girl, “I have no mother, no father, no sister, no brother” – but I feel more whole and connected each day, nonetheless. Some lyrics from Cindy Bullens express it best:

There’s a curious freedom rising up from the dark
Some kind of strength I’ve never had
Though I’d trade it in a second just to have you back
I gotta try to make some good out of the bad

So I laugh louder
Cry harder
I take less time to make up my mind and I
Think smarter
Go slower
I know what I want and what I don’t
And I’ll be better than I’ve ever been
Better than I’ve ever been

Find Cindy Bullens “Between Heaven and Earth” on Amazon

Listen to Orphan Girl by Gillian Welch

Listen to Bruce Cockburn’s The Rose Above the Sky

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Howe Gelb remembers Sept. 11 in “NYC of Time”

10 Sep

THIS INTERVIEW ALSO APPEARS ON THE NO DEPRESSION WEB SITE

“NYC of Time,” the second track on Giant Sand’s 2004 offering, Is All Over the Map, pays homage to the resilience of New York City and delivers a deeply felt encouraging word to all who were affected by the devastation of September 11.

Now based in Tucson, Arizona, Giant Sand’s front man Howe Gelb is no stranger to The Big Apple. I interviewed him recently about the city, the song and the events of ten years ago. Howe is both a poet and an innovator, and as such desires that the language used to represent him be rendered precisely in his own in cadence, tempo, beat and pause. This interview was conducted via e-mail, Howe typed his answers exactly the way he wants them to appear and requested that they be provided here sans capital letters. I am honored to abide by his requests.

Frances: You lived in New York City not one but three decades ago, when you were heading up your first band, Giant Sandworms. What was your experience like and what do you remember most about living and playing there?

Howe: i lived there in 1981 in the lower east side with my band for a year when living there was a daily danger. it was like a city attacking itself back then, but it always made more sense somehow than any other violent place. that time there lent itself in a way that made everywhere i’ve ever been since, easy by comparison. it was a training grounds to survive the time there then with our fledging band. adventures like being mugged and playing cbgb’s and wandering the streets all night became part of strength and fiber needed for continuance in me. i loved the time spent there then, no matter how tough it was, now only respect the place more since that day 10 years ago that dared to show what its people are made of and how to deal with horrors beyond anyone’s imagination.

Frances: One of the most compelling tunes on Is All Over the Map, “NYC of Time” makes the acronym “NYC” into the word “nick,” as in a cut, scratch, gash or dent – and as in the adage “in the nick of time.” Its climax contains the ironic yet triumphant line, “New York, there’s more to you now that something isn’t there,” which I take to be a direct reference to the city’s way of coping with the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

Howe: of course it is. the horror of that day was of biblical proportions. we as a species deal with it and continue finding ways to fall in love and live on no matter the consequences of this existence. new york being as intense as it always has been is probably the only place on earth to take it on the chin and continue to be even greater than before. it’s like what happens to martyrs; they become more powerful after their destruction.

Frances: How do you feel looking back to 10 years ago and how do you hope people who hear the song “NYC of Time” will interpret what I and many of your fans consider a bright, powerful and uplifting tribute?

Howe: i still say prayers for those that were on those planes. to envision them in that ordeal and send them the kind of thoughts and real energy from this life in hopes of some connection and embrace beyond this place. especially the mothers and children and the words they must have spoken to comfort each other in those final moments. the babies and the mothers on those planes, how they embraced each other in a way of representing the best quality of us as a species and the love that binds more than anything. then to all the countless people from such immensely varied cultures in the towers that only new york could ever accumulate, and how they then had to cope with their final moments and plunge into the next world with such conviction they never knew they had in them until that moment.

the song “nyc of time” pales by any comparison, but its thrust is there to help move it all ahead to a better time and place, and a dance to get us there.

nyc of time

new york, big city of dreams
take a bad time and make it better
there on the sidelines
you redefine, redefine, redefine.

n y c… spells nick to me
adjust in space
and just in time
you redesign, redesign, redesign.

in the nick of time
in the nyc of time

new york, it’s good to have you there
there’s more to you now
that something isn’t there
see it shine. see it shine.

in the nick of time
in the nyc of time

Listen to the song here.

Learn more about Howe Gelb and Giant Sand here.

Image credits: Howe Gelb by George Howard; Twin Towers by Cynthia Cusick.

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.