Category Archives: Previews

Henry Rollins: One Man Band


Muscular. Shirtless. Sweaty and screaming. And in the most chaotic moments during his punk years, beating the shit out of hapless members of the audience who somehow thought it’d be a good idea to mess with him. These are just a few of the images conjured by the name Henry Rollins—at least for anyone who grew up listening to his music or saw him playing it.

As the longest tenured singer of pioneering L.A. hardcore punks Black Flag, and later with his own Rollins Band, the iconic frontman reinvented performance intensity on a nightly basis. But, as it goes with the brightest burning stars, his time in music faded somewhat quickly.

Last performing with Rollins Band in 2006, the now 55-year-old actor, writer, radio/TV host and activist has sworn off music and spent the last decade further diversifying his career in a multitude of ways.

One thing that remains from the old days, however, is his penchant for spoken word. Meticulously honed over the last 30 years, Rollins’ “talking shows” combine experiences from his world travels, the politics that have defined much of his work and daily, on-the-fly personal observations.

Equal parts humor-tinged journalism, self-help workshop, and current affairs briefing, Rollins actually sees only slight differences between these performances and his first ones.

“I’m a one-man folk music band now,” he tells CityBeat from his Los Angeles home. “I make vocal music for folks. That’s it. I’m just not interested in collaboration at this point in my life. I’ve done a lot of it. And it’s not a democracy that interests me.”

He does still take great interest in the democracy of America, and feels confident expounding on it each night, having experienced everything he talks about on stage first-hand. If he speaks to global climate change, it’s based on his time in Antarctica with a team of scientists. If a bit involving North Korea makes its way into the set, it’s drawn from his trip there.

His travels to nearly 100 countries and all seven continents inform almost every facet of the show, continuing to make good on the tagline from his last big spoken word tour: Knowledge Without Mileage Equals Bullshit.

“That’s my life,” says Rollins. “I put the miles in. And that’s why I know what I know. There’s nothing put on. I’m not winging it. I’m coming with a solid gut punch.”

Fortunately for current fans, he means that figuratively. But it’s that same ferocity with which he used to rail on Reagan and Thatcher that continues to drive his fight against today’s unfortunately similar problems. While the recent election results are sure to create a never-ending source of material to help build solidarity at his shows, Rollins is aware that things are going to get a whole lot worse before they better.

“This is going to be very rough,” he says. “It’s going to be rough on poor people, lower middle class people, non-white people, gay people and women people. I spent most of my life on the street. And I can see a grift coming in my sleep. This is a grift.”

Perhaps it comes with the nuances of getting older. Maybe it’s just a result of aggressively and systematically deconstructing information, trying to understand it, and synthesizing it on a nightly basis for audiences all over the world. But Rollins is anything but dejected by the thought of Trump’s New World Order.

In fact, he’s feeling quite the opposite.

“America is a Philly Flyers game,” he says, referring to the professional hockey team. “There are teeth and blood on the ice. But I don’t think there’s a more interesting time to be alive and awake in this country. The people you don’t like no longer hide in the shadows. And if you want to see what the problems are, well, there they are. We’ve now got all the lights on and can get to work.”

Never one to talk it without walking it, Rollins plans to fill 2017 with benefit shows, direct support for specific causes such as Planned Parenthood and the Southern Poverty Law Center, and stepping up his already ridiculously active schedule. He’s even thinking about single-handedly trying to reach and inspire the 45 percent of eligible voters who didn’t bother with the election in the two years we have before midterms.

He is also holding onto the thought that the deep divisiveness of the country could actually be the catalyst for youth to shake off their rampant apathy and unite in raging against the machine.

“Hopefully,” says Rollins, “these young people that Clint Eastwood deemed a generation of pussies can actually lead. Because, eventually, these old crusty bastards like myself will fall away. And you’ll be left with the residue of everything from Brexit to whatever damage Donald Trump does in the next four years. Maybe this is where the positive outcome happens.”

Regardless, it’s a safe bet that Rollins will be out there doing his part until he’s no longer able. And much like the Nietzschean warrior who craves a good battle, Rollins is ready to mix it up the same way he used to with the fans even if this time around it’s with words and not his fists.

“Whether you voted for this guy or not,” he says, “here we are. And as they say in the octagon, here we go. We’re all going to see. Unless you disappear, or go into denial and live in a thick-walled cave, you’re going to get some on you. We’re all going to get some on us together. Let’s get into it and start thrashing about.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat

Kool Keith Beats The Odd


“I make more songs than I can remember.”

Kool Keith isn’t lying. The prolific Bronx-based rapper born Keith Thornton has at least 26 albums to his name. Add endless collaborations, compilations and one-off appearances, and the number of musical contributions from the emcee and producer far exceeds expectation from someone 32 years in the game.

As a co-founder of pioneering New York hip-hop crew Ultramagnetic MCs, Thornton quickly became known for his distinct delivery, offbeat production and abstract, often sexually explicit lyrics. His long-running solo career, now more than 20 years old itself, has only added to the unique legacy through an unparalleled cast of alter-egos and aliases he’s created with near-method fervor. Whether as Dr. Octagon, Black Elvis or Dr. Dooom, the pseudonym-happy performer never fails to engage listeners with tales from his idiosyncratic bizarro world.

On his latest, the September-released Feature Magnetic , the rapper’s most compelling role is behind the scenes under the alias of Number One Producer.

With an all-star cast of rappers including MF Doom, Ras Kass and Atmosphere’s Slug guesting on every song, Feature Magnetic has no shortage of distinct and hilarious wordplay. But it’s Thornton’s tailor-made beats that steal the show.

“I customized each track for the person on it,” he tells CityBeat from his longtime home in the Empire State. “Most of the stuff that’s out there right now is the same. And it’s time for something different in the rap world. There needs to be a real drastic change musically. People need to know there are different sounds to work with than what’s been in hip-hop for the last 10 years. And originality means a lot.”

While that last statement could stand as Kool Keith’s career mantra, his journey to full-fledged beat maker was actually born of necessity.

“For a long time,” says Thornton, “I had to beg guys for beats. I got tired of that. It’s a scenario like when I always had to ask people to drive me places. I ended up having to buy a car. It’s the same thing with beats.”

It wasn’t just the supply and demand chain that drove Thornton into production, he adds. “It was the politics of it as well. A lot of producers want you to feel handicapped. When you don’t have a way of making beats, people don’t want to give you any. And as a rapper, that’s my food. My mind and creativity has to have that food.”

Self-sufficiency and sustainability are assets to any artist. But for a 53-year-old emcee who refuses to retire the mic, it’s like the gift of eternal life. Fueled by an undying passion to create, the rapper’s unshakeable persistence also burns with the refusal to follow rap’s systemic ageism.

“Rap is the only style that has an age limit,” says Thornton. “It’s still seen as urban hood music and people don’t respect it as art. They respect jazz. People respect rock. But stereotypical rap protocol is five or 10 years before throwing it away to ‘move on’ to something else. A rock star can have a family and play guitar until he’s 99 years old. But there’s a limit on rap.”

Surprisingly, Thornton believes a pair of unlikely sources is responsible for the lion’s share of the problem.

“Most of it comes from black people,” he says. “They’re the only demographic that puts an ending on it. And it’s not just the audience but the rappers themselves. People just use rap to go on to do other things. They start acting, they get into television, do radio. And when they make it, they never have any compliments back about how rap is why they’re popular. But they used it to gain these things. It kills me how people take the art and abuse it.”

Thornton cites T.I. as an example of a successful rapper who not only juggles a massive family, multiple revenue streams and an ongoing creative output, but someone who didn’t forget what got him there in the first place.

Yet the lack of like-minded peers is anything but a deterrent. If anything, it’s just another thing that helps to stoke his creative fire.

Inspired equally by Curtis Mayfield, the Ohio Players and New York street artists creating aluminum menageries from Dr. Pepper and Shasta cans, the rapper is content funneling it all into his singular passion as long as he’s able.

“Some people need a bottle every morning,” says Thornton. “I’m a record-aholic. I like making records. I like going into the studio. And even though Feature Magnetic just came out, I feel like making more music right now. It’s my cause. My creative technique never dries up.”

As can be expected from an artist as prolific as Thornton, there are plenty of Kool Keith projects in the works. While he’s anything but a predictable artist, that all-inclusive role of rapper/custom producer is likely to be around for many years to come—probably until the day someone is able to pry the microphone from Thornton’s hand.

“I never feel like there’s going to be an ending,” he says. “Recording is what makes me happy. There are a lot of people out there who don’t like their jobs. And it’s not like a basketball player that can’t dunk no more. People can do this in a wheelchair. Music is in your heart. The creativity and dedication keep me going.”

Originally published by San Diego CityBeat

Mekons Forever


In some parallel universeMekons are huge rock stars. They’re worshiped for their legacy as first-wave Brit punks and adored for spending four decades evolving into something else entirely. Their hodgepodge of influences, from the Sex Pistols and Balfa Brothers to George Jones and King Tubby, only add to their popularity, and the one-time Leeds-based socialist collective are both recognized and respected as transformative pioneers.

It’s a nice thought. One that the band’s shamefully small legion of fans and advocates know is far more deserved than their status as perpetual underdogs.

Widespread adulation, however, as well as its accompanying trappings, allows many artists to become complacent. And that is the one thing Mekons will never be.

In an age where most bands spend more time on their social media presence and identity branding than staying rigidly true to their core ideals, Mekons just keep thinking up quixotic ideas and acting on them.

So it makes perfect sense that the group’s latest release, Existentialism (out now on Bloodshot Records), is yet another exercise in pushing limits.

Recorded at a Brooklyn theater in real time last summer, an audience of 75 “mekoristers” got lyric sheets, directions from an actual conductor and were politely required to break through the fourth wall.

With the band not much more versed than the audience in the recently composed material, the initial goal was to see “just how spontaneous and immediate the thing could be,” says Mekons cofounder Jon Langford, in a phone interview with CityBeat from his home in Chicago.

“We never really thought of it as a live record,” he adds. “It was a recording session where the audience was forced to be part of the band. That was the initial premise. We wanted to make a record that completely discarded any need for modern production values. We just thought we’d try and make something that sounded quite barbaric.”

If held to today’s standards, the objective was definitely met. But for anyone even remotely familiar with Mekons’ music, it’s just another charming and successful endeavor from a band that never seems to worry about much more than making sure to see things through.

“Does the world need another overly produced, heavily compressed Mekons studio album?” asks Langford. “I don’t think so. If you have a formula for how you approach each record, I think it makes it kind of lazy. And I really like the way this one sounds.”

Existentialism also comes with a 96-page book of art and writing responding to each of the album’s 12 songs, along with a download of Mekonception, Barry Mill’s 30-minute surreal take on the politically infused recording session.

It also comes on the heels of Joe Angio’s 2014 documentary on the band, Revenge of the Mekons.

Angio tells the band’s story through both past and present members, as well as a wide-range of fans, from National Book Award-winning author Jonathan Franzen to filmmaker Mary Harron.

While Mekons knew the film was unlikely to be a merited watershed moment, Langford admits it has been a boon to the band.

“It’s been a very useful thing for us,” he says. “It’s something that both pleased and satisfied people who were interested in the band and provided an introduction for those who didn’t know anything about us. Joe did an incredible job because he actually finished it. He didn’t just run away screaming after dealing with us for that length of time.”

The film also seems to have prompted the group to recalibrate their desire to join forces creatively. Despite band members being spread across the globe and not a cent coming from any kind of corporate backing, the Mekons have three—three!—tentative albums in the works for next year.

“If we had the air miles,” says Langford, “we could probably do a couple of them every year. But then it would become a formula and become crap. So we have to change it up. But at the moment there are three achievable, but slightly scary, projects on the horizon.”

One of them will celebrate the collective’s impending 40th anniversary, one will find them returning to a proper studio in Joshua Tree (“We have mechanisms in place to booby trap that process”), and one is still in the early planning stages.

But regardless of what ends up materializing, the indomitable ensemble is undeniably re-inspired. And for both old fans and new, that’s good news.

“There’s something in the water at the moment,” Langford says. “You just reach a point in your life where life takes you over. You’re too busy with the things of having kids and earning money. It makes something like the Mekons a desirable thing to do, but just too hard to get to.

“And now, we’re suddenly entering this age where weíre like, ‘Fucking hell. If we don’t do it now, we’re never going to do it.’ There’s a lot of stuff on the agenda. And there’s a greater sense of urgency than we’ve ever had.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat

Lucy Dacus Lays Burden Down


Too bad there’s not a better way to say “wise beyond her years.” Lucy Dacus deserves more. But it almost seems impossible to imagine anyone coming to a different conclusion after listening to the 21-year-old singer/songwriter’s stunning debut album, No Burden.

Recorded in a single day thanks to a friend who worked at Reba McEntire’s Starstruck Studio in Nashville, Burden sounds like anything but a rush job. Filled with big rock hooks as well as nuanced slow-burners, Dacus’ undeniably big voice moves effortlessly between them all.

Knowing that it was the singer’s first time in a studio, and that she and the band had only played together for a week prior, makes it all the more impressive. But it also seems to be perfectly in line with the Richmond, VA, native’s genuine and unceremonious path to a career in music.

Adopted by a piano-teaching mother and guitar-playing father, Dacus had a childhood filled with musical theater and sneaking into rock shows. Still, it wasn’t enough to prevent her from enrolling in film school. But when a planned semester off from Virginia Commonwealth University coincided with the studio availability, a new trajectory was set in motion.

If No Burden sounds more like a seasoned effort from a mid-career pro and less like a whirlwind debut from a film major, it’s a testament to the potent combination of Dacus’ big-league voice, forthright storytelling, and a determination to get better.

And she’s just getting started.

“We’re all ready to get back into the studio,” Dacus tells CityBeat during a recent roadside stop for hot dogs between gigs. “We have enough material. And I know I’m going to have a much more hands-on part in the production of it. When we recorded, I had never been in the studio. I didn’t know anything about the technology or terminology of recording. Now, I’ve got a much better grip on that stuff.”

No Burden was released in February on Richmond label EggHunt Records and was picked up shortly after by veteran indie label Matador Records. They just re-released it digitally and will be serving up physical copies on September 9.

Considering the album was getting substantial buzz before Matador got involved, it’s easy to understand why the floodgates have opened since. Everyone from Time and NPR to Pitchfork and Noisey have nice things to say about it. And because Dacus already has a stockpile of new songs ready to go, whatever comes next has a great chance to escape being tainted or shaped by everything that’s going on now.

“I wrote a lot of these new songs,” she says, “around the same time that the No Burden songs were written. Or since then, but before the album took off. A lot of the new stuff is uninfluenced by how our lives have changed. I mean, there has been some reaction to what it’s like to be a full-time musician, but it does seem a bit preserved and lucky that we had so much content before any of this happened.”

Essentially having another album in the can also means that Dacus won’t have to adjust her writing style any time soon. Pressure to adhere to a timeline doesn’t jibe with the singer’s current “capture it when it comes” method. And while inspiration seems to be coming to Dacus plenty these days, it’s nice to know there’s a reserve ready to cover any dry spells.

“I don’t push to create,” she says. “Whenever I try  to write, it comes out bad. I just have to pay attention to when my mind is moving. Listen to my thoughts. I think some people fall into the pitfall of wanting to immediately translate their experience into creative work. You have to process your thoughts. I don’t have a lot of control over it.”

For now, Dacus and her band are enjoying the ride. They’re content to share their music with a host of new cities (the band’s first ever San Diego stop comes August 12 at the Casbah) and know there is plenty more music making to come. But with all the planning, execution, and adjustments needed to make it all happen, there is one thing that they didn’t see coming.

“I didn’t realize I was basically agreeing to move away from my hometown for the first time,” says Dacus. “When most people move to another city, they usually plant their roots in that second place. They meet people and build a new circle of friends, a new network. For us, we didn’t move to a new city. We’re just roaming. It’s hard to maintain everything that I knew, all of the relationships, while being on the road.”

She’ll adjust. They all will. The music is too good and the potential too promising. It might still be a bit early for all that’s happened to truly sink in, but it’s definitely started.

“We’re way more pleased than we expected to be,” Dacus says. “We had really low expectations at the beginning. But at this point, it’s definitely exceeded them.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat 

The Geography of Kevin Morby


Kevin Morby isn’t flashy.

He isn’t known for on-stage antics, run-ins with the law, or heroic battles with substance abuse. The 28-year-old singer/songwriter is the kind of performer far more likely to be found writing new songs in his hotel room rather than trashing it in some kind of Dionysian stupor.

Yet, despite his workmanlike approach and matter-of-fact demeanor, Morby’s backstory reads like a page out of the “How To Make It In The Big City” playbook.

He escaped Kansas City at 18, heading to New York by train at the request of the one friend he had there. With little more than a sleeping bag and wide-eyed ideas of making music, Morby made ends meet working short-term jobs from bicycle courier to babysitter.

It didn’t take long before the affable singer was playing bass with Brooklyn folk-rockers Woods and cranking out a couple of albums (as The Babies) with Cassie Ramone of Vivian Girls. But much like the icons that initially inspired him, Morby was destined to carve out a path of his own.

Recorded after a move to L.A., 2013’s Harlem River served both as the young musician’s solo debut and an eight-song homage to his time in the Empire State. He followed it a year later with the 10-song collection Still Life, and just released his third album, Singing Saw, in April.

“I like the metaphor of something that’s beautiful,” Morby says while driving to a recent show in Minneapolis, “but also eerie.”

The first release for indie label Dead Oceans, Singing Saw was again inspired by geography. This time around, musical ideas were sparked by a move to the Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Mount Washington.

Nighttime walks – with the expansive city lights as a backdrop – first led Morby to the sparse and otherworldly sounds found on his new record.

Perhaps more than anything, it was an upright piano left behind by previous tenants that helped to shape Singing Saw’s collection of songs. Never working on piano before, Morby was excited by the serendipity that was seemingly directing him to shake up his songwriting process.

“The guitar is my go-to,” he says. “And it’s always been that way. But things get a little boring when you’re writing and recycling the same chords that you always do. To stumble upon an instrument like that opened up this whole new world for me.”

Even as a beginner, Morby found that dealing with basic mechanics again was anything but a hindrance. Things like not realizing what key he was in while on the piano allowed him to forget his own accrued musical prejudices and simply concentrate on sound.

Renewed energy and a creative push weren’t the only benefits the piano brought, either. Working on a new instrument allowed the songwriter to blow off steam in a newfound way.

“It’s really percussive,” says Morby. “I’m a big Fiona Apple fan and I read this interview with her where she said that she liked to write on the piano because she could take out her aggression on it. And it’s true. You can bang it. It’s almost like you’re hitting it. Even now, I write something on guitar and I’ll take it out on the piano. It’s like having two different lives or something.”

Singing Saw’s arrangements were fleshed out by Sam Cohen (Apollo Sunshine, Yellowbirds), who Morby met while playing in a Cohen-led live recreation of The Band’s final performance. Although the two became friends, it wasn’t until he heard one of Cohen’s self-produced solo albums that Morby thought about working with him.

“We had gotten along really well,” he says. “But it was never my intention to record the whole album with Sam. It was more just about testing it out – a ‘hey, let’s get together, record a few songs and see what happens’ kind of thing. But then we got together for four days and it went so well, the album was basically done.”

Morby has since moved from Mount Washington and taken a sublet in Echo Park, but for all practical purposes is on the road for the foreseeable future.

“I’m living in the town of tour,” he says.

But no matter where Morby ends up, the creative shift and expansion of musical arsenal he acquired in the L.A. hills left an indelible mark.

And while he admits that his next project is already close to completion, it will be interesting to see what comes when the singer has a long stretch of nights to just walkabout and absorb his surroundings again.

“I’m always working,” says Morby. “But a big part of this record was the time and space I had from touring. There was a lot of reflecting and being appreciative of music in general. It sounds cheesy, but I really found an appreciation for all instruments and aspects of music. And that’s exciting.”

Originally published in San Diego City Beat

Banking on Santigold


Santi White is nearing the end of her proverbial rope. She’s over-worked, bone-tired, and making a concerted effort not to burn out. But mostly, the artist also known as Santigold is wondering just how long she can continue the energy and acuity needed to push her third LP, the February-released 99 Cents, released in February via Atlantic Records..

“It’s really intense. Honestly, it’s hard to be a human being and sustain this pace,” says White with a laugh from Austin, Texas, where she’s holed up between multiple SXSW appearances. “And it’s especially hard with me because I’m so hands-on with everything and approach it all as art. It’d be a lot easier if I were one of those corporation artists that had millions of dollars, still actually sold records, and had crazy teams behind me. But because I’m the type of artist I am, it is so all-consuming.”

The performer/producer is undoubtedly stretched thin, but it’s not like she didn’t know what she was getting into. A former big-label A&R rep, she had written songs for the likes of GZA, Lily Allen, and Ashlee Simpson before releasing her own 2008 self-titled debut as Santogold – later changed to Santigold after a legal challenge from a filmmaker and owner of a mail-order jewelry business.

Earmarked by significant contributions from Switch, Diplo, and producer John Hill, her first record was a genre-bending mixture of pop, new wave, punk, and dub. She followed a similarly eclectic blueprint on 2012’s Master of My Make-Believe, an album that made it to number one on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Albums chart. But it isn’t the music or the process of making it that is throwing White for a loop this time around.

“It’s all the new technology,” she says. “Everybody is trying to utilize it, but for the actual human trying to move through it, I just don’t know how it can be sustainable. The quantity of content you’re expected to be doing now is too much. Luckily, I’ve been trying to create content daily. The creation is what I love. It’s the pace and the budget that are really fucking difficult.”

White is well aware that a lot of the pressure she’s currently feeling is self-imposed. No one is forcing her to promote 99 Cents with mini infomercials on tumblr, art installations, parties at actual 99¢ stores, and a seemingly never-ending laundry list of press commitments – all on top of directing videos, choreographing live-show dancing, making costumes, and producing social content.

But when big-name artists backed by production crews and creative teams are setting the standards, regular artists are forced to keep up.

“It’s almost as if the music is a side note at this point,” says White. “And that’s what I think is the real danger. You just can’t spend as much time on the music. Everybody is at their max. There are no budgets. There is no help. And there is a lot of expectation.”

Despite the inequalities, pressure, and increased workload, the 39-year-old singer is anything but deterred. Instead, she’s taken on the new challenges of technology-based self-promotion with a spirited tenacity. And she’s done it all while raising her nearly two-year-old son.

While she doesn’t hesitate to criticize the current state of the pop music machine or its non-musical burdens, White is bolstered by the thought that good music will always survive passing trends.

“I think the fact that people are buying vinyl again is telling,” she says. “But it all comes down to values. Do people value talent? Do they value hard work? Immediacy? Disposability? Empty celebrity? Culture is moving without thought or direction for where we’re headed, and is letting us be guided by the wave of new technology, rather than driving the ship. I just really hope it swings back to valuing something more someday.”

Until that day comes, expect Santigold to keep producing her unique blend of musical stew and designing the entire experience around it. Whether she continues to keep stride with the system she routinely calls out remains to be seen. But just because she’s got all of her chips on the table doesn’t mean there still aren’t a few tricks up her sleeve.

“I do have in the back of my mind where I’d like to go,” says White. “But I also feel like it’s really important to be in the moment. It’s hard work right now and it’s all I can do to barely hang on. I’m just trying to see this thing through.

“I’m an artist, I love creating, and I want to participate. I want to be part of the pop world. I like pop music. And I love making pop music. But I want to keep the integrity. Honestly, I just want to keep the art of what it is that I’m doing.”

Originally published by San Diego CityBeat

Exploring Julia Holter’s ‘Wilderness’

Julia Holter - Credit Juri Hiensch

Julia Holter readily admits she isn’t a huge fan of touring. Perhaps she’s only saying that because the L.A. singer/songwriter is currently enjoying the waning days of a 6-week break between extensive runs. Or maybe it’s the fact that she hasn’t yet figured out how to get any work done on the road. Either way, it isn’t going to matter for a while.

The 31-year-old released her fourth full-length, Have You In My Wilderness, in September. She spent October opening dates for New Mexico indie-poppers Beirut, and the rest of last year zigzagging the globe from Germany to China and Korea to Australia.

Holter is kicking off her first full-fledged U.S. run for Wilderness this week with a 6-date West Coast tour starting in San Diego. Then it’s off to Europe for a few more shows, and back once again for some East Coast and Midwest dates, as well as a few in Canada.

Although it won’t be until mid-March before the classically trained multi-instrumentalist will be back in her own ZIP code for more than a few days, she does recognize the upside that comes with performing every night.

“Things surprisingly change,” Holter tells CityBeat from her Los Angeles home. “Songs from the albums end up sounding a lot different when they’re played live. And that’s always something that I’ve been comfortable with. We have different instrumentation when we play and there aren’t a million layers of vocals and keyboards. You do something different with what you have and I like that.”

Born from a trio of songs that once exclusively lived in her live set – “Sea Calls Me Home,” “Betsy on the Roof,” and the album’s title track – Have You In My Wilderness sets itself part as Holter’s only record that doesn’t construct an overarching theme from literary sources.

Her 2011 debut, Tragedy, was inspired by the ancient Greek play Hippolytus, and 2012’s follow-up, Ekstasis, leans on references from Virginia Woolf, Frank O’Hara, and Canadian poet Anne Carson. It was Colette’s Gigi that helped to color Loud City Song in 2013.

Breaking from that tradition, Holter has described Wilderness simply as a “collection of ballads.” And while producer Cole Marsden Greif-Neill made sure the singer’s voice was far more prominent in the mix this time around, the new album still rests comfortably where pop and experimental music intersect.

Does that mean Holter is done with literary references or operating under a thematic umbrella? Not necessarily.

“I like to work with overall stories,” she says. “There’s something very exciting to me about having recurring characters, even if it’s an abstraction of that character that’s not always fitting. I’m sure I’ll do something like that again. But we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Even if she does return to an academic text or outside source for inspiration in the future, the singer is skeptical of anyone with the idea that her music is any more fraught with ideas than other things out there.

“I don’t think my music is high-concept at all,” says Holter. “And I don’t think I’m pushing the boundaries in terms of conceptual music. Some people might say it, but that just has to be semantics or something. There’s far more conceptual music that exists these days. And I’m not really strategizing my music in any way.”

She’s also not about to switch things up by incorporating direct life experiences into the narratives of her songs. First and foremost, Holter sees herself as a storyteller.

“Nobody really wants to know about my weird relationships,” she says. “I mean, don’t people want to listen to a song and apply it to their own lives anyway? Then it has a universal quality and is much more engaging than a song that’s about this very specific, weird person’s life. Nobody needs to know that. It’s kind of boring.”

Fans would likely enjoy debating that, but it doesn’t really matter. Even if Holter fancied the idea of completely re-designing her creative approach, she doesn’t have the time.

In addition to her current tour schedule, Holter was just tapped to compose the musical score for “Bleed For This,” an upcoming Ben Younger directed/Martin Scorsese produced boxing film. She also recently joined her father – historian, author, CEO of Downtown L.A. Motor group, and folk singer Darryl Holter – on his 2015 release, “Radio Songs: Woody Guthrie in Los Angeles 1937-1939.”

Performing alongside Ani DiFranco and Sara Watkins as the album’s guest performers, it was a surprising first for the father/daughter duo.

“It wasn’t exactly a familiar experience,” says the younger Holter. “I’ve definitely listened to him play for years. But that’s very different than playing with one another. And it was the first time that we worked on something like that together. It was fun and very moving.”

She’s excited to repeat the process again on his next album, but has plenty of her own work to do in the interim.

After the breakneck pace of four albums in five years, as well as her first foray into the world of film scoring, Holter is content with just concentrating on her upcoming tour dates before making a commitment on the next creative project.

“I’m actually trying to figure that out,” she says. “But there’s not a clear process for it. For now, I’m just trying to make sense of the ideas I already have.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat

Leon Bridges’ Old-School Cool

Leon Bridges press photo 2 - record player - photo credit rambo

It’s apparent within a few moments of speaking with Leon Bridges that the cool he exudes is genuine. The singer-songwriter’s subtle southern drawl and off-the-cuff humility are undeniably infectious. And both perfectly reflect his conservative Fort Worth upbringing as the son of a church-going single mother.

He begins more than one response with “I’m a simple person,” and measures each question before answering thoughtfully. His polite and straightforward manner never wavers.

In an age dominated by shameless self-promotion, Bridges’ modesty is almost at odds with his unbridled success. His June-released, retro-leaning debut, “Coming Home,” premiered at number six on the Billboard 200 and he’s currently in the midst of a completely sold-out world tour.

“It’s insane, man,” Bridges recently told CityBeat before playing to a capacity crowd at Chicago’s Vic Theatre. “Everything’s moving so fast. It’s totally blowing my mind. I just had no idea. Some people might think I did this because I knew it would be successful. I didn’t think that at all. (laughs) I wish I did.”

Perhaps the only thing more impressive than the 26-year-old’s meteoric rise to stardom is the mythology that is helping him get there.

And it reads like a Hollywood script.

Once on a path to becoming a choreographer, Bridges spent downtime between college dance classes writing songs with a fellow keyboard-toting student. When his Usher and Ginuwine knock-offs sounded more like the “old school singers” to a friend, Bridges was encouraged to check out Sam Cooke via YouTube. It stuck.

Combining his already astute fashion sense with the simplicity of Cooke-era songwriting, Bridges initially floundered as a retro-soul act in Fort Worth clubs while working as a dishwasher on the side.

That is, until high-waisted Wranglers came into play.

One night, Bridges was introduced to Austin Jenkins of Texas garage rockers White Denim because they were both wearing the same kind of jeans.

A week later, Jenkins saw Bridges perform and asked him to record in the studio that he and White Denim drummer Joshua Block just set up. That was a year ago. And they haven’t looked back.

“What’s crazy is that none of this was forced,” said Bridges. “I had my own thing going on when I met Austin. He was like, ‘Let’s record these songs,’ and we did. The fact I found the most amazing band, team, management, and record label just from that is amazing. And now everything is going so well. I did not expect any of that.”

He also didn’t expect the label frenzy that hit epic proportions when he first released a few of his songs online. But that didn’t stop high-level execs from flying in from overseas or the endless barrage of invitations to a variety of pitch meetings.

Although he finally settled with historical powerhouse Columbia Records, Bridges did it with the caveat that “Coming Home” would remain unchanged from the way he delivered it.

“If the labels weren’t down with what I was doing,” he said, “then I’d be totally fine being an independent artist. And really, it was almost like an experiment for them, because they didn’t know how the crowd was going to react. We’re doing the old school formula and you just never know. But to see how people are reacting to it, and to see labels totally accepting of what I’m doing, it definitely gives me the confidence to keep doing my own thing.”

Confidence isn’t exactly an innate quality for Bridges. But with each sold-out show, he’s admits to gaining more and more traction. Things like a recent collaboration with rapper Macklemore haven’t hurt either.

But despite the many requests for contributions to various other projects, as well as past opening slots for a diverse range of headliners like Lord Huron and Sharon Van Etten, the low-key crooner has absolutely no plans to change his formula.

“I mean, I do want to make the next record better than the first,” said Bridges. “But it’ll be the same approach. Right now, I’m just really presenting it to the crowds and saying, ‘this is what I’ve got.’ We only have a 10-song record out and a lot of those songs aren’t the types that immediately get the crowd up and dancing. But it’s working.

And I think it’s great that what I do is nothing new.”

Bridges isn’t divulging any of the surprises his follow-up to “Coming Home” might contain. But it’s obvious that his interests go beyond classic-era soul/gospel when he casually mentions his love for singers like Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zant.

And while his current tour has now been extended all the way through next summer, Bridges admits new material could arrive sooner than later.

“I write wherever I am,” he said. “I could be in the grocery store and think of a whole song right there. I don’t need a certain place to do it. I just write whatever is in my mind at the time.”

Whenever the next thing comes, Bridges knows it’ll be hard to compete with the unfathomable run he’s currently enjoying. But he’s determined not to lose himself along the way.

“I look at myself as a songwriter,” said Bridges. “I want everything I do, and everything I put out, to be a reflection of me. I write under the umbrella of soul music, and my songs are about love. I’m just trying to package it in my own way.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat

Falling in Love, with Lucinda Williams


“Some people knew they were going to be at a wedding that night and some didn’t.”

Lucinda Williams is referring to her somewhat impromptu 2009 nuptials during the middle of a show at Minneapolis’ First Avenue. The groom, Twin Cities native and former Universal Records exec Tom Overby, had served as the gravelly-voiced Grammy winner’s manager for two years before saying, “I do.”

And while the event will always serve as a fantastic anecdote for both the couple and the unsuspecting fans in attendance, it’s also marks a turning point in Williams’ career.

From the time of her 1979 debut, Ramblin’, Williams struggled with writing songs. Even nearly a decade later, when Rough Trade released her self-titled breakthrough, the Louisiana-born singer still had difficulty crafting the album’s eleven original compositions.

Blame the emotional pain of penning dark, brooding tales of unrequited love, or Williams’ own insistence on surpassing prior works, but the process never came easy.

That is, until recently.

2007’s West was a revelation. Mining the impossible emotions of losing a parent, and guided by her new relationship with Overby, Williams wrote enough material for two albums (the extra songs from the West sessions ended up becoming most of 2008’s Little Honey). And since that wild night of rock and roll matrimony in 2009, Williams’ has both expanded her lyrical focus, and kept the spigot to her newfound creativity wide open.

“I guess it’s better late than never,” she tells CityBeat with a husky laugh from her Los Angeles home. “I can’t really explain it. But I know I’m an anomaly. That’s for sure.”

Case in point: 2014’s Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. Produced by Overby and guitarist Greg Leisz, Williams’ eleventh studio effort is her first-ever double album. Featuring Elvis Costello’s rhythm section, progressive guitarist Bill Frisell, and an assortment of L.A. studio musicians, the 20-song Spirit was actually edited down from a much larger cache.

“We recorded enough for three albums,” says Williams. “We had so much material that we knew early on it would be impossible to narrow it down to one. But thankfully we knew which ones had to come out together.”

Spirit marks other firsts for Williams as well. It’s the first time she’s used lyrics by her recently deceased father, poet Miller Williams (“Compassion”). And it’s also the inaugural album for her newly founded label, Highway 20 Records.

More than just a vehicle for her own future releases, and in conjunction with plenty of guidance from Overby, Williams relishes the opportunity to find and promote new talent.

“We really haven’t kicked it into gear yet,” she says. “And I’m not sure what to expect. I’ve never had my own label before. But I feel positive about it, and just hope I don’t have hundreds of artists getting me to sign them (laughs). Because I love pretending I’m an A&R person, going into clubs, and discovering great new artists. I have a good ear for that sort of thing. And now, I actually have a vehicle for it.”

While all of this new inspiration, energy, and expansion is coming at a time when many of her contemporaries are either winding down or relying on the re-hash of classic albums in their past, Williams seems to be hitting her creative stride.

Her trademark voice is stronger than ever, she’s finally in a supportive and nurturing relationship, and the most challenging part of her creative process has been figured out.

“I don’t think in terms of age,” says Williams. “I don’t understand when artists feel they haven’t ‘made it’ by the time they turn 30 and start talking about giving up because it’s too late. I’m too fat, I’m too old, I’m too tired – none of that flies. I didn’t even get my first break until I was in my mid-30s. So I don’t get those attitudes. Ageism only exists in the pop world. It’s just not a factor in things like jazz or blues. People are sometimes surprised by my age, but my songwriting has matured as I’ve matured.”

That tough-as-nails attitude resonates in everything she does. For an artist whose music tends to be emotionally vulnerable, there’s an undeniable vibe of industrial-strength durability to everything else about Williams.

“I really enjoy that image,” she says. “I enjoy being the bad girl, the Chrissie Hynde or Joan Jett type. And I’m also not afraid to tell it like it is in my songs. But I just lean more in the direction of motorcycle dudes and leather jackets. So it makes sense that I’d give that impression. It’s probably the combination of all of those things.”

Williams will remain on tour for Spirit until the end of March, when her focus will return to the new record. Although it isn’t likely to be another double album, it promises many other surprises, including covers of The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory.”

Additionally, where Frisell’s contributions to Spirit were limited, he’ll be featured on almost every track of the next one.

With the release date of the new album still undetermined, and Highway 20 Records yet to be fully realized, it’s likely Williams will hit her upcoming 40th anniversary with a full head of steam and no signs of slowing down.

“I really don’t think like that,” says Williams. “When someone mentions how long it’s been, I still have a hard time believing it. But Tom and I make a good team. And it’s very liberating to have creative control, to be able to put however many songs you like on an album with no middleman to tell you what to do. I have the best of all worlds, and it’s a great situation to be in.”

Originally published by San Diego CityBeat

Christmas Under Waters


John Waters hates Easter.

Well, the popular version of it, anyway.

He hates the hunt. He hates hard-boiled eggs. He hates the pastel-colored baskets and the shredded plasti-grass that goes in them. But, most of all, he hates the bunny. Man, does he hate that bunny.

Christmas, on the other hand, is a different story.

Since releasing A John Waters Christmas in 2004—a compilation album of hand-picked holiday oddities from artists like Tiny Tim and Jimmy Donley—the cult filmmaker and best-selling author has used every December to star in a Christmas-themed, one-man show of the same name.

What started as a handful of stand-up dates in places like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., has now become a well-polished show that makes an annual trek through 15 cities, as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

“I hope it sounds like I’m just talking without any planning,” Waters says, speaking by phone from his hometown of Baltimore. “But it’s completely written out and rehearsed. I need to remind people of important things—like to never ask the fat person in your office to play Santa Claus. That’s the worst, rudest thing you could ever do.”

And while it’s impossible for the transgressive auteur not to infuse his perverse holiday monologues with the same kind of bawdy humor he used in films like Pink Flamingos, Polyester and A Dirty Shame, the man once dubbed “The Prince of Puke” swears the show—which comes to Belly Up Tavern on Dec. 4—is more therapy than anything else.

“I don’t have much tongue-in-cheek in this,” he says. “I’m serious when I say I’m going to tell you how to get through Christmas no matter your religion, creed, sexual preference or relationship with your family. If you’re a criminal, a capitalist, Republican or Democrat, I can tell you how to get through it. It’s like a self-help meeting.”

Despite the current version of his traveling support group unabashedly celebrating things like Christmas-tree violence and chocolate, Santa-shaped butt plugs, Waters’ own Yuletide celebrations are relatively tame.

He designs and sends out a Christmas card. He gives gifts. He throws a party. And Waters always takes his turn when it’s time to cook for the family.

“It’s traditional,” he says, “but everything has a twist to it. My mantle has the Unabomber birdhouse on it. My sister does a wreath on the front door, but it has prickly bushes that scratch you on the way in. I decorate an electric chair instead of a Christmas tree. But I’ve always said that to celebrate bad taste, you have to know good taste.”

And gift giving and receiving? For the 66-year-old iconoclast, it’s all about books. A bibliophile with a massive collection, Waters finds as much joy in fringe pulp fiction as he does Tennessee Williams. Whether it’s a cheesy, soft-core sex book with a hilarious cover or an obscure piece of literature he hasn’t yet acquired, Waters wouldn’t want to unwrap anything else on the big day. For years now, on the top of his wish list are movies made into novels.

“I collect those because no one collects them anymore,” he says. “It’s a dead genre. And if anyone can ever find me the novelization of Pootie Tang, I’ll give them a lap dance.”

Waters is an accomplished author himself, with five books to his credit. The latest, 2010’s bestselling Role Models, is a collection of essays, including reflections on Manson family member Leslie Van Houten, singer Johnny Mathis and Baltimore stripper Lady Zorro.

He’ll follow that next year with Carsick, a chronicle of his recent hitchhiking adventure across the country. In it, he both imagines what might happen and documents the actual pickups by, among others, a city council member, a married couple and the indie-rock band Here We Go Magic (they tweeted in disbelief at the time).

“The first third of it is a little novella,” Waters says, “and I’m imagining the very best that could happen on the trip—vicious characters, sex, adventure. Next, I wrote the 15 worst rides possible. The day before I left, I wrote my own death, and then I went and really did it. Twenty-one rides in nine days. Most people thought I was homeless at first. The rest you’ll have to read in the book.”

If it seems strange that an iconic writer / director of 16 films has spent the last eight years doing one-man holiday shows and authoring books, it is, especially considering that Waters’ 1988 film, Hairspray, was turned into a Broadway hit—before Hollywood remade it in 2007—and went on to become the forth-highest grossing musical in U.S. history.

But he hasn’t stopped trying to make movies. He’s been attempting to get his children’s Christmas film, Fruitcake, which he describes as “The Little Rascals on acid,” made since 2008. The studios haven’t been cooperating.

So, instead, at least for now, all of that unrequited holiday commentary is channeled into his live act.

“I hate Easter,” he says. “But I do like Christmas. I just think everyone’s neurotic at Christmas, even if you don’t acknowledge it. And that’s just another form of neuroses. And that’s why I’m here to tell you how you can both love and hate Christmas at the same time.”

Waters is going to keep writing books, and he’s going keep doling out Christmas advice and observations, until someone decides to finance Fruitcake. And if that day never comes, well, he’s fine with that, too.

“It may never go into production,” he says. “That’s why I’m writing a book. But it’s OK. I have many ways to sell stories. It’s not that big of a shame. I’ve made 16 movies. It’s not like I haven’t spoken.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat on November 28, 2012