Monday, August 31, 2015

Album review: Loser Angels by Jim Pelz

From the first song, ‘Faded’, this album is a rollicking good time. Such is the energy on these tracks that I wanted nothing so much as to be sitting in a bar watching Pelz play, because it sounds like that would make for a really great experience.

Pelz is the singer/guitarist for the Cincinnati Americana/Bluegrass outfit Hickory Robot, so his country musical pedigree is well established, and these are definitely country songs: the instruments, the time signatures, the lyrics all establish that, with some variations. There are influences from across the decades of country music – echoes of The Byrds mixed in with the lyrical sharpness that marks the latter years of country.

Pelz demonstrates that he knows what each song needs. On the tenth track, ‘Sand in the Machine’, the lead vocals are given to Lauren Schoelmer, a soulful female singer who gives the song the drama it requires – as well as a female narrator. On other tracks he’ll adjust his own vocals to suit, and he clearly understands what instruments are needed when. While the album is, as mentioned at the top, highly entertaining, it’s also musically sophisticated – listening between the lines, so to speak, there is a lot going on.

And still I come back to that idea of what Pelz must be like live: to capture joie de vivre along with the essence of his songs is always going to be a treat for a listener. So if you’re ever near Cincinnati, make sure you go to a gig and then drop me a line to tell me what it’s like.

Loser Angels is out now.

Interview: Greta Stanley

Far North Queensland artist Greta Stanley recently released her debut EP, Bedroom City, at the age of 20. Greta has already built quite a following and Bedroom City proves why. It was my pleasure to talk to her about her music.

Congratulations on your EP, which is just a delightful collection of songs – and your voice is captivating, which I’m sure you already know because people have told you.
Thank you! It’s always nice to hear.

I’ll start with a perhaps unusual question, by asking you what the sounds of your childhood were.
I guess I was influenced by whatever my parents were listening to, with a bit of terrible stuff that my friends were listening to [laughs]. I grew up listening to Missy Higgins, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Dixie Chicks were a big one for us, the Waifs, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash. And then the stuff that I would listen to – I remember just loving Pink when I was a kid. And Jojo, which I think was a hit back then – but it was terrible [laughs]. Pink’s all right but Jojo no deal. But I guess a mix of everything. My brother was listening to Eminem and Alien Ant Farm so I thought that was cool and I listened to that as well.

That’s quite a mix of things.
Yeah, it is.

You liking Pink and listening to the Dixie Chicks – I can hear that in your music. Natalie Maines [of the Dixie Chicks] has quite a strong, articulate voice and Pink is a very developed singer. So out of that background, how did you develop your sound?
There was always a guitar in the house when I was growing up. My dad played a few chords. I showed an interest in it after he showed me the basics and I kept learning. I taught myself through online tutorials and learning off other people at school or friends. A family friend, Dusty, he taught me the blues, which was awesome. Dusty taught me great music. I think the first song I ever learned was ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’, so I had good taste from then on out. I guess I started writing my own songs and playing them to family and close friends. The first few were absolutely terrible and people thought I was terrible [laughs] but I just really enjoyed expressing myself through music and the more I did it, the better I got and the more confident I got, and the response I got was better the more that I tried and put it out there. I’m still developing as an artist. I haven’t involved myself in one particular sound. I hope in a year’s time that I’m going to be better or different or something like that. But it kind of just came naturally. I’ve never set out to have a certain sound, it’s just whatever I’m writing and feelings that I’m feeling will come across in how I sing, if that makes sense.

Absolutely, it does. A lot of people would be content playing guitar in their bedroom and maybe singing away to themselves. With singer-songwriters who are performers, there’s always that element that the stories you’re telling belong to a bigger audience and that’s the point at which you decide to start performing. Did it feel a bit like that for you – ‘my bedroom is not big enough any more’?
Yes [laughs]. That’s how it starts. I was always playing in my bedroom and then I started to upload stuff online – I’d post a video on Facebook or something on Soundcloud, and people really liked it. I got a good response. Once I finished high school I thought maybe I should give it a shot. So I moved from Mena Creek to Cairns, which is an hour and a half north, and I did music at TAFE – a Cert III and a Cert IV – and just being surrounded by people who are in the same headspace and same industry is inspiring. Through TAFE I was able to learn about how to get gigs and how to get my stuff. TAFE teaches you a certain amount and then it’s up to you, and I followed through. I started busking in Cairns and people from venues saw me busking and asked me to play at their venues, and it just all went from there. It’s such a nice feeling to play to people. I mean, sometimes I’ll play to drunks who don’t give a crap [laughs] and sometimes I’ll play to people who will come up to me and tell me that I’ve really spoken to them with whatever I’m singing at the time and that’s what makes it all worth it. I’m glad I got out of my bedroom [laughs].

Just on the subject of busking: it takes a lot of guts, I think, to stand there when the audience is so close. If you’re on a stage there’s at least that little bit of distance. Do you love busking or do you see it as a challenge?
I think I like busking almost better because in a way I don’t get as nervous because people are just walking past – some people will stop and listen for a while, and that’s a bit nerve wracking. But when you’re playing a gig – especially a really important gig – all eyes are on you and all the focus is on you. But when you’re busking people are just walking past having a little listen and they keep on going, and I think that’s better because it’s not all the attention on you, which can kind of rattle your nerves a little bit. And busking builds your confidence – you just meet so many people and I think it’s a great way to practise your skills, and if you stuff up it doesn’t really matter because most of the time people are just walking past.

Have you ever busked at the Tamworth Country Music Festival?
No, I haven’t, but I would love to.

You’d better … particularly if you have busking experience. Because so many big country acts have started their careers by busking on Peel Street, everyone goes to look at the buskers because they’re never sure who’s going to be there. So it’s a massive crowd, and a knowledgeable crowd, and especially if you have experience, you’ll go down a treat there.
That would be awesome. I’ve been making a note to look into the Tamworth Festival.

I’ve interviewed Fleur McMenamin in the past and I think she’s terrific. It would be great to hear a bit about your relationship with her and how it’s helped form your career.
I was just so lucky to meet Fleur. There’s a programme in Cairns called Spotlight and they ran this competition, and I entered an original song. From there I was selected to attend Bigsound in Brisbane, which is a music conference. So Fleur was one of the people who ran that competition, so when I went down, I went down with her. And she was the one who found my song and said, ‘This is incredible’. Then she got into contact with me. It was funny – she said if I had entered a day later I wouldn't have been in with a chance, it was the very last minute. From there I guess we kept in touch and she gave me the ropes of what I should take to Bigsound and what I should have ready. Being someone like Fleur who had a lot of experience in the industry, she knew a lot and I knew nothing, and she really helped me out. She introduced me to Mark Myers, who was my producer for the EP, so if I hadn’t met Fleur I have no idea where I would be right now.  [Laughs] Probably still in my bedroom! So when I went to Bigsound with her I guess, like anyone you hang around with, you get to know them, and me and Fleur really hit it off. She’s been mentoring me, co-managing in a way, and we’ve just become really good friends. I love her. And she’s just had a baby, so I haven’t heard from her in a little while.

I think Simon McMenamin played on your EP as well?

I find it really interesting that they have this classically trained background and they’re both operating out of the Cairns area, because a lot of people would think you’d have to move to Brisbane at least to make a go of it. They’re so committed and passionate about music that it’s really infectious.
It is. She’s a musician, a mentor, a mother and a friend all in one. There needs to be more Fleurs in the world.

Well … I think what tends to happen when you’ve had that sort of experience is that you, in turn, may end up mentoring someone at some stage, because you’ve felt the benefit of that connection.
Yes, definitely. I’m so grateful to have met someone like her and, like you said, I hope that one day I can help out someone with the knowledge that she’s given me and what I’ve learnt myself as well.

You mentioned Mark Myers, who was your producer, and it seems that he became, in the studio, a bit of a collaborator as well – is that something you were expecting to happen?
So, I went into the studio and we did the first three songs before Bigsound – so we just did them to take down to Bigsound and then after that the idea of an EP was floating around and Mark said it was a good idea and Fleur said, ’You should do it’. So I went on to record the next three with Mark again. The first day in the studio was pretty nerve wracking but Mark’s awesome to work with. It was so easy to work with him, because if you’re really comfortable around him – which I think is really important in a producer, in someone that you’re working with – he really appreciated my music and really liked it and that’s why I was open to any suggestions or ideas that he had, because I knew that his heart was in it.  So he featured on ‘Left’ and ‘Bedroom City’ in the vocal department – you can hear him doing some back-ups there.             So I just went in with me and my guitar, and that’s all I had for the songs. I wrote them and I played them on the guitar, and I showed them to Mark, and from there we brainstormed where we were going to take them. He had a lot to do with how they turned out because they’re more than I imagined initially, in the best way.

It’s interesting the different forms your work can take – you compose it on the guitar and originally you compose it for your voice and the guitar, and then someone else comes in with a different interpretation of it. I guess, though, each time you perform the song it’s a bit different, isn’t it?
Yeah. I think we had a lot of difficulty in the studio because I’d never worked with anybody else and my timing was a bit all over the shop.

I suppose it could have gone the other way – he could have had a very different interpretation of your songs than the way you thought they should be interpreted.
That’s it. Because I was comfortable working with him I trusted his opinions on the songs, and everything he did he would ask me if that’s okay and we’d tweak it and make it work. It would have been completely different if I’d gone in with someone who wanted to do it in a certain way and wasn’t going to budge on how they wanted to do it because they’re my songs and it’s like my baby and I want it to be the best that it can be. But I think I was just really lucky to have Mark as my producer.

The EP’s been released through Junkie Uncle Records. A lot of people I’ve interviewed, including Fleur, have crowdfunded their albums and managed that whole process through. So you’ve released this EP through Junkie Uncle – how did they find you or you find them?
Junkie Uncle is Mark. Jake Rhys is the other half of it – he’s the business side and Mark’s the music side. So it’s just like a licensing deal that I did with them. So obviously they found me through working with Mark and he wasn’t going to propose it to me because he said, ‘I don’t just want to suck you in to record and then suck you into this label’ but we went over it and chatted and it just seemed like a really good idea. And they’re both lovely guys and it’s been a really good experience. They’re an indie label and there’s a few other people on their label, and they’ve helped me get the song onto iTunes and the hard copies are available through their website, which is awesome for people who want to get it.

Being a new artist, and surveying the landscape, there’s so much more to think about – social media, for one thing, which can occupy a huge amount of time if you let it. There’s the fact you have the physical release and the digital release, and the discoverability of both. And also thinking about being in regional Australia and how you connect with your audience. When there are so many avenues for people to discover you and for you to connect with them, how do you start to conceive of who your audience is?
The internet is a really important platform for me because being from a small town, that’s always been the way that I’ve gotten [music] out to a wider community. My audience is kind of really mixed up [laughs]. There’s a bit of everything. I did a crowdfunding campaign and through that you have a glimpse of who your audience is – who’s buying the CDs and stuff like that. It was just really a surprise. There were two people from the Netherlands who bought it – one was 60 and one was 30. And three people from the UK who I don’t know and I have no idea how they found my music. And then there’s a bit of an older audience, and a bit of a young audience. It’s so cool to see that. And I think that’s what’s handy about the internet – you can view who your audience is. As for when I play live in Cairns, I guess the music industry isn’t as big as in Melbourne or Brisbane or anything like that, there’ll be a young crowd at the gigs but there’ll be an older crowd as well because it’s just what’s on at the time. I guess the people who would relate to my music the most are people who’ve had heartbreak or a bad ex-boyfriend or something like that. [Laughs] Probably everyone.

 Bedroom City is out now through Junkie Uncle Records.
Visit Greta on Facebook.

Album review: Farther Down the Line by Bryan Hayes

Country music has many ‘sub-genres’ – country rock is one of the most developed of these. But even within country rock there are categories: ‘bro country’, for example, is, lyrically and musically, a long way away from the sort of country rock that tells stories that belong within the country canon but which are classified rock because they have a different time signature to other country songs and use a few more guitars.

Bryan Hayes plays country rock of the latter kind. The Memphis resident tells stories of country lives and country scenes – the second song, ‘Small Town Amazing Grace’, has the line ‘In a small town, life seems right’, and Hayes sings it with conviction tinged with weariness, although no lack of sincerity. It’s a combination of emotions that marks many of the songs on this album. Perhaps that has to do with Hayes’s own story: he was deployed to Iraq in 2009 and 2010, which forced him to take a break from music.

Hayes’s songs aren’t rock songs, but they have that satisfying rock beat (anyone who loves rock music – as I do – will know what I mean by that and it’s related to how easily one’s head can nod along to a beat). That makes this album really easy to slip into: toes will tap and heads will nod before you’re even at the first chorus. What will keep you coming back is the stories. Some are straightforward, and some are playful, as on the song ‘Our Love is Like a Tractor Tire’, which has a more traditional honky tonk sound.

This is a well-rounded collection from a singer-songwriter who has things to say and who can say them articulately and in an entertaining way without being a lightweight. That’s quite a balance to achieve.

Farther Down the Line is out now through Retriever Records. 
Find Bryan Hayes on Facebook.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Album review: Ashes & Dust by Warren Haynes

Certain things can't be faked in creative endeavours: talent, commitment and experience. For a singer-songwriter, all of these can be heard - or not - in the voice. Talent can be raw but its presence is usually marked by the fact that the listener wants to keep listening, and keep coming back to listen. It's not something that can be identified in a paint-by-numbers way; there's no formula. It's there or it's not.

Commitment is also there or it's not. It can be heard in the seriousness with which the singer approaches the task. There's a balance to be struck between trying to prove something - which is bound up with ego - and in being committed to doing the best job you had. Commitment is in the way the song is delivered: with conviction; with each note treated respectfully; with an intention to communicate to the listener.

Experience, of course, can be the hardest-won element because even a talented, committed artist may not make it far enough into a career to have a lot of experience. But if experience is there, it tends to be revealed in how at ease a singer is. If they sound like they're striving, or straining, it can signal that they don't have enough experience to feel comfortable with their performance. Experience makes the listener feel at ease: we can sit back and enjoy what's going on, knowing that we're in safe hands.

It's no surprise that Warren Haynes has experience - Ashes & Dust may be just his third solo album but he has played extensively for others, including the Allman Brothers Band. His experience shows in how easy this album is to listen to - from the first song, it's a country/blues/roots treat. The enjoyment of it time after time, though, comes from Haynes's evident talent and his commitment to his work. These are very well-constructed songs, articulated clearly for the audience. Certainly, that audience is unlikely to be hipsters - this music reflects Haynes's pedigree (and there are shades of Creedence Clearwater Revival in there too). The audience is more likely to be people who like their music familiar with an edge of the new, dark and strange; those who aren't afraid of traditional instruments or stories told as if the listener is drawing close. This is a mature album for people who take music seriously and who want to be satisfied, moved and entertained all at once.  

Ashes & Dust is out now through Provogue.