Archive for the ‘ writing ’ Category

One Night Music: Felonious

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Writing about hip hop is a bit of a stretch for me, but I gave it my best shot for this One Night Music session: www.onenightmusic.com/felonious.  Please visit Felonious’ session page to watch more videos, download audio, and see some beautiful photographs.

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Felonious

When I was in high school, there were a few tenuous years I listened almost exclusively to hip hop.  Then it was musical theater, Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson, then boy bands, and then alt rock: my friends and I, like most people who are sane, question the substance of our early musical proclivities.  But following a rough breakup, something big in me shifted: I discovered folk and never turned back.  This is not that story.  But somewhere in that story is a piece of myself I let go along the way.  This is where I find that piece.

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How do I begin to describe Felonious?  It’s an overwhelming commission for a country music enthusiast who has set neither foot nor ear near hip hop since age fifteen.  But today, in my kitchen, I am whipping cream to beatbox and acoustic ‘records’ scratching, and dancing to a cappella bass echoing from the mouths of MCs Soulati and Infinite.  I am right where I need to be.  I am teenager, teacher, mother.  I am whipping cream.

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Felonious, a collective of musicians and actors, performers and playwrights, dancers and teachers, husbands and fathers, are each their own variety of Renaissance badass.  Though they are hardened by a dozen years of hustling the ins and outs of the Bay Area hip hop scene, you wouldn’t think twice about bringing them home to meet your mom; not because they are accomplished — though with four albums, several EPs and three hip hop theater productions[1], they certainly are — but because they are genuine, kind, and somehow commingle an impossible mix of gritty and tender.  Listening to Felonious, I suspect while we record them for One Night Music at Coda, feels a little like calling grandmother while sipping bourbon, or smoking a cigarette at the peak of a fast.

The act of Felonious is what happens when these six guys convene and unleash their art live.  The One Night Music crew assembled, larger in number than usual, to document Carlos Aguirre and Tommy Shepherd build intricate beat boxing loops that the four MCs (Dan Wolf, Keith Pinto, Carlos and Tommy) rap over.  Add to that some catchy refrains, keys (Keith), guitar (Jon Monahan), drums (Tommy) and you can maybe picture the material components of a Felonious set.  But to really understand, you have to see Tommy rap while drumming, never missing a beat.  Or write an idea of your choosing (like “cigarettes,” “Hippies,” or “scared of the woods”) on a Post-it at “Live City Revue” (a multi-disciplinary arts event Felonious hosts at Coda) to hear an MC freestyle on your selection as he works through his random handful of notes. Or hear Carlos shut down a post-session freestyle outside of Coda, split second to conjure as a bus passes, with a line about catching the 49 to City College.

This collective of men have combined their various talents and passions, which are expansive and overlapping, to carve themselves a niche in Bay Area hip hop culture — which is to say, they do so much more than mix thumping beats with hard lyrics.  They use hip hop as a platform to inspire people who need it, much unlike the hip hop artists I listened to in high school.  Carlos, for example, teaches hip hop dance, songwriting and beatbox in different Bay Area classrooms, but the work he speaks most highly of is his regular teaching gig at a local jail.  His students there, he says, are surprisingly responsive, yet most of them haven’t been in a classroom since junior high or high school.  The satisfaction Carlos derives from teaching inmates is testament to the philosophy these Felonious guys live by.  Hip hop, for them, is a positive, community-building venture.  You’re only good at what you’re passionate about, Carlos says.

And they are. Watching Felonious record their One Night Music session is an endless barrage of talent, surprise, explosives.  There is no end to what they do.  That music and energy — the theater, beat boxing, looping, rapping while drumming — is nothing less than oceanic, unbounded.  While Felonious is no throwback, they released something in me: a belief that hip hop need not be ego-dominated, that it could be alive, filled with all the nuance and care of art, of true love.

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Felonious’ new album Live City releases Tuesday June 8th, 2010.  The Live City release party and show is June 10th, 2010 at The Independent in San Francisco.


[1] Beatbox: A Raparetta; Stateless: A Hip Hop Vaudeville; and Angry Black White Boy.

Love at Muddy Waters: Rey Villalobos and Blind Pilot

Here is a blog post I wrote for One Night Music (onenightmusic.com) featuring one of my favorite venues in Santa Barbara — Muddy Waters — and the Portland, Oregon-based band Blind Pilot.  Please visit the official blog post for additional videos, mp3 downloads and artwork.  And if this commingling of music, media and writing interests you, join the One Night Music email list for updates when we launch new music on the site.  No spam, guaranteed.

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Love at Muddy Waters:

Rey Villalobos and Blind Pilot

A dear friend of mine back in Santa Barbara recently wrote an essay on love and was kind enough to share it with me.  It was poignant, drifty, one of the most beautiful things I’d ever read.  Loving your friends, loving your lover, everything, everyone — people you’d never have and the ones you probably could.  I laughed so hard, I cried, and I realized: I am just like Candice.  I am falling in love just about all the time.

In August, I fell in love twice in the same night.  I came solo to Muddy Waters Café in downtown Santa Barbara with a field mic and a pocket camcorder to record Rey Villalobos (formerly of The Coral Sea) for One Night Music.  Oh Rey, number one:  I can’t say I wasn’t expecting it.  I’d met Rey a few nights earlier, and he was as charming as they come.  We decided I’d come to the show (Rey was opening) and record his set, but — lighting not so good — we switched gears, set up at the end of the night in Muddy Waters’ storage closet for the most intimate One Night Music recording session I’d experienced yet.

Thing I Cannot Recall

Earlier, while the second band played, I sat outside and tried to get myself drunk.  I did this sometimes on dates with myself.  I had exactly one week left to reminisce the meanings I found in various Santa Barbara spots.  Great shows aside, Muddy Waters’ back patio was my favorite thing about the place. Years ago, my ex’s brother first brought me there.  He’d sit out back for hours drinking redeyes and smoking spliffs he’d made earlier by pulling tobacco out of his Camel Lights with tweezers and stuffing a mixture back in.  He wrote a novel doing this.  I still marvel that it took someone far away visiting to introduce me to the locals’ spot that would become my favorite.

Drifting. It’s when I heard Blind Pilot that I thought to go back inside.  Rey, a former Santa Barbara resident, was now living in Portland, but I think it was maybe by coincidence that he opened for the Portland-based Blind Pilot that night.  There’d been a lot of hype around this band recently, and Ian had excitedly contacted them about recording with One Night Music.  Israel Nebeker, who formed Blind Pilot with college friend Ryan Dobrowski, told me he never saw that email.  Israel is dreamy — curls and curls, like my boyfriend but taller.  He gave me the go ahead to take some impromptu videos of Blind Pilot during their set and added, “I can’t promise anything about the sound.”  Your modesty, number two! It gets me every time.

We Are the Tide

Standing at the back of the crowded café, I could hardly see the heads of the five or six bandmates.  Guitar, drums, bass, banjo, trumpet, vibes, even harmonium. And vocals, man, oh man.  I spotted a friend near the stage and pushed my way up front.  It was there, perfectly positioned under a single light, that I captured these four videos.  Sometimes watching them I get chills.  Blind Pilot played their hits, to be sure, but they ended with “We Are the Tide,” an upbeat, drum-laden, lose-yourself-to-dance song not featured on their debut album 3 Rounds and a Sound. As the room erupted in dance, I held my arm and camcorder steady, and still the collective energy coursed through my frame.  These songs, they ached of love and loss, of triumph and jubilation and skinned knees, tender and raw.  And longing: my love through the telephone wires and Rey at the back of the room and Israel, closest, but far far far.  The words became drums, the drums became claps, the claps the sounds of flinging arrows, breaking hearts.  Glory night!  I am in love, I am in love, I am in love!

Driving away from Santa Barbara seven days later, packed car, is like this: tight squeeze and quick kiss to each love — the music, Jeffrey Shuman of Club Mercy, your band and friends, places like Biko and Cold Springs Tavern and Muddy Waters, fires and ash, the best farmer’s markets. You trade this because several months ago you dreamt all of your teeth were falling out, crumbling into your cupped hand as you sat terrified, idled by some waiting room.  You trade this, oh shit, for a grieving mother, a pining for change a desire to upturn things, a love somewhere upstate you hope sticks.  The road home is golden burnt by August.

One Night Music: Rey Villalobos

Art by Myles O'Donnell-Lawson

Please visit www.onenightmusic.com/reyvillalobos to see this writing in its proper forum, with videos and free mp3 downloads.

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In the spring of 2009, Rey Villalobos, hit by something good, pulls his car to the side of the road and writes “Honeybee.”  Just like that. Guitar in hand, he sits on the warm hood, surrounded by sagebrush and bougainvillea and olive trees, and takes in the cool salt breeze. The chords and lyrics arrange themselves.

Four years earlier, what comes to Rey is a succession of words, a phrase, a title.  Roses in the Nordic Countries — wow, that’s good! — will be the name of his first solo album.  Here, the title precedes the title-track by several months, and later, the music is complete before the right words fix themselves to the melody.

This August, I meet Rey at Muddy Waters in Santa Barbara to record him for One Night Music.  He opens for Blind Pilot and I tape his set, but the lighting’s dark, so after the show we set up in Muddy Waters’ tiny storage closet — we pack in with coffee cups, back-up beers, and tortilla chips — for a very intimate One Night Music session.  At first, Rey’s hushed voice competes with the rowdy clean-up crew, but soon the café falls silent and I’m sole witness to his blushing lure, delicate guitar lines and whispered melodies.  Later that night we talk at a friend’s house, and when we part, I feel we’ve known each other much longer than those few hours.  I won’t see Rey for a while; I’m about to move north.

During one of several trips to Portland, made over the course of a year to record Roses with producer John Askew, Rey sits on his girlfriend’s couch.  She always wants to make out, passionate and messy.  Rey jokes, “Just kiss me like it’s the 50’s.”  He picks up his guitar and sings it to her.  They laugh — it’s funny — but fuck, it’s good.  Rey turns this into a serious song, something raw and honest and melancholy and hopeful.

Like the stories of Rey’s creative process, the story of his musical history is broad.  He first studied classical piano then switched to drums, played in bands, picked up the guitar and decided he wanted to sing.  He started making demos.  Then, Rey broke up with a long-time girlfriend and got a credit card in the mail with a fifteen-thousand-dollar credit-limit.  He decided to make a record.

That record was Volcano and Heart, the first of two by The Coral Sea.  An indie label picked it up and sent the band on a national tour.  While fronting The Coral Sea, however, Rey was stockpiling material for a solo album — tucking away both completed songs and song fragments for Roses in the Nordic Countries. “Honeybee” — captured between takes of The Coral Sea’s second album recording — was one such song that turned out so perfectly, it accidentally made it on Firelight.

Rey says there’s an old Chumash curse — a legend, really — that lures people back to Santa Barbara.  When you live there, it’s a place you can love and hate at the same time, but it’s when you leave that it feels most like home.  While recording his EP Roses in the Nordic Countries, Rey traveled frequently between Santa Barbara and Portland.  He moved north, he moved back.  Now, Rey lives in Portland but loves the freedom afforded by his new solo career — the ease with which he can move around.  Last November he toured in New York and the Pacific Northwest, phoning friends to play with him along the way.  This spring, he’ll play a show in SXSW with Sharon Van Etten, whose song “Much More Than That” was recently featured on NPR’s Song of the Day, and in May, Rey will embark on a Western States tour with friends Hosannas (a band formerly called Church.  Next week, Rey says, he could be living in Brooklyn, or Paris.  It hardly matters.  Still, it feels really good to come home.

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If you’re in Santa Barbara, catch Rey Villalobos on February 20th, 2010 with Mirah at The Hard To Find in Goleta.  Or get his new EP (a beautiful very-limited-print-edition in four designs, sure to run out) at reyvillalobos.com and check his tour schedule at myspace.com/reyvillalobos.

One Night Music: The Finches

Art by Jen Kindell

Art by Jen Kindell

Here is a piece I wrote for an LA-based band I love — The Finches.  I’ve posted the essay in its entirety here, but you should visit One Night Music (www.onenightmusic.com/thefinches) for the official session, which features four videos, my set description, the beautiful rendering of The Finches I’ve used here by Jen Kindell (an SF-based artist), and four (free!) mp3 downloads.  Enjoy!

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The Finches

“I’m sorry if it’s a little rough tonight,” Carolyn tells me. It’s the end of May in Santa Barbara and I’ve met The Finches at The Biko Garage in Isla Vista to record their show for One Night Music. Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs–who is in actuality as cute and well-formed as her name sounds–is best described as pure sweetness, as dicentra spectabilis, lemondrops, or CPR. She has been travelling a lot recently, and subsequently the band has had little time to practice. Still, there’s no need for her to apologize. The Finches are awesome. Their songs have been strangely lodged in my head for the past month, looping between three of their catchier tracks to make a sort of Finches shuffle in my head.

It seems everyone else at Biko knows The Finches too. They’ve played before at the Pink Mailbox, another Isla Vista SBDIY venue, but I first heard them while channeling Joanna Newsom on Pandora. If you like this sort of quirky-folk-meets-fun-indie-pop, The Finches will stop you in your tracks. Carolyn’s voice–mighty yet somehow delicate at the same time–is one of a kind, perfectly suited for her songs’ gentle, lilting melodies.

Once an acoustic duo based in San Francisco, The Finches are now an electric trio from Los Angeles. Carolyn writes their songs, sings lead vocals and plays electric guitar. A visual artist as well, Carolyn created the artwork for their original EPSix Songs, their full-length album Human Like a House, and their new maxi CD single Dear Mili. On stage, Carolyn asks, “Do you guys know what a ‘maxi single’ is?” She explains: one new song, several new versions of old songs, available for five dollars. Carolyn’s accompanied by Gerry Saucedo on bass and Cam Jones on drums. Carolyn will tell you that Gerry gives the best hugs. Both Gerry and Cam sing harmonies, and together, the trio creates an especially full sound, lush in vocals and a bit rockin’.

During their set, The Finches are comfortable and easy-going, despite their relatively new line-up. Biko is packed with its typical indie-co-ed/artsy-co-op crowd, and by the end of the show, everyone’s heart-warmed and dancing. Michael Albright films up front, and I stand at the back of the crowded room, Zoom mic in hand. It is not long before my arm throbs holding still, but I hear all my favorite songs. Step Outside, one of The Finches’ more accessible and radio friendly tunes, is a kind of pastoral: a call to go for a walk after being cooped up all day. Deceivingly simple, it has clever lyrics and a two-part refrain that’s layered as the song builds, resulting in different lyrics sung simultaneously. Daniel’s Song is for Carolyn’s brother. It’s a good-natured ode to surviving their parents’ house and to sticking together: Daniel, you can take the bus, but if you’re not feeling right, I can pick you up ‘cause I kind of like to drive. At the end of the show someone requests Last Favor, a bittersweet break-up song of incomplete farewells, run-ins with former loves, and overdue goodbyes. In dreams, Carolyn sings, in dreams, we never say goodbye. Goodbye, goodbye…

Earlier that day, I sit in a busted lawn chair, alone in my ex-boyfriend’s garage, at the house where we lived for nearly three years. I am selling my things. I did this yesterday too, to great success. But today the fog is heavy, the air misty, and the sky threatens rain. And so I am alone, surrounded by things–my things–I haven’t seen in five months. I hate these things, the weight they carry. Disheartened, I pack up early. Goodbye, goodbye. At Biko, I am alone too but surrounded by familiar people. Here, I am not my things, my throbbing elbow, my worn and heavy heart. I am this bopping, this bass, these thirds, these fifths, this lovely voice, this pulsing and excitement and love. Oh, the beauty. I must share The Finches! Here you go, friends.