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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.

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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.

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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.