Monday, April 14, 2014

Now on Newsstands: John Wesley interview

Photo Credit: Photography by Andy Wright,

Fact: John Wesley has just released one of the year's strongest albums.

The 10-track album, titled Disconnect, is the career pinnacle of the the solo artist first discovered by Marillion and renowned as a tour guitarist for the likes of Fish, Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson. 

Every single song has is hooky melody, strong lyrics and fantastic production. When I interviewed Wes for the new issue of Prog, he told me that he picked up all his production skills from working with Steven Wilson over the years. (In turn, Wes showed Wilson how to shoot a gun.) Also, Alex Lifeson of Rush lays down an epic solo on the song "Once a Warrior." Quite appropriate given that Disconnect has a very Rush vibe. 

Watch the video for the title track and lead single, below.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Now on Newsstands: Imogen Heap interview

Imogen Heap has no need for drummers.

On her fourth electro-pop album, Sparks, the British songwriter created beats by sampling sounds such as her baby niece’s heartbeat inside the womb, the slam of a dishwasher door, and the clatter of a Chinese printing press. An egg in a bowl became a snare drum effect.

Heap's love of "found object" instrumentation doesn't end with rhythms. When I interviewed her for the new issue of American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines, it quickly became clear that Sparks is one of the most ambitious albums ever made. It boasts a cast of thousands of collaborators from around the world who helped Heap with her sound collages. (Read more about them in my interview.)

“I quite liked this idea that, instead of it always being me, the spark would come from the outside world,” Imogen told me.

For starters, Imogen asked her two million followers on Twitter to help out.

"I asked my fans to send in anything they wanted, any kind of sound," says Heap. "Within the first hour there was maybe two or three hundred sounds. The first sound was a Ukelele sound generated by a man named Robert Ponto. He was a fan who came on and uploaded the sound of a ukulele being played – one chord of a ukulele and then putting on an effect, which sounds like a digital delay."

That became the initial spark for the song "Lifeline." The songwriter described how the rest of the song quickly came together.
My brother sent in the sound of his daughter, who had yet to be born, the sound of her heartbeat in her mother’s womb. The tempo of the heartbeat was perfectly in time with the sound of a slinky going down a staircase sent in by someone named Toby Barnett. There was a perfect contra rhythm.  I thought, ‘Well, that’s meant to be.’ So I had the tempo and I had the rhythm and I had the key and now I just needed a melody.   
I had 900 sounds all-in-all.  I had started to build a piece of music quite quickly together. Later on that evening,  I knew my brother was watching and they’d just had their first child. So now, I’m an aunt for the first time ever. Very exciting. So I thought, ‘Ok, Giles , you’re online. Everyone’s online. I’m going to sing the first thing that comes into my head. That’s going to be the melody I use in the song. The first melody I sang ended up being the beginning of the verse.  I’ve never done that before –online, live in front of people. I felt like everyone was supporting me. I wasn’t just singing it for me, I was singing for everyone. I was so inspired lyrically to write this song. I was literally beaming with excitement. 
It was a wonderful way to begin a record – not scared and lonely and in room wondering, ‘What am I going to write about?’ It was a magical beginning and it just kept on getting more magical. 
You can hear the end result, "Lifeline," below.

Heap created the album over several years, aiming to finish one song every three months. As soon as each song was finished, it was released as a digital single with its own music video. (I've included a few, below.) The songs now comprise Sparks (which also includes one or two previously unreleased new tracks.) Heap famously hates deadlines. But her piecemeal approach to the album freed her both creatively and physically.

"I realized that, any project I wanted to do, for the first time in my life, I could say, ‘Yes.’ Because the record didn’t have to be done in a year. For the first time, I could integrate my touring life, my family life, my musical creativity. All these things together fitted into each other. Instead of feeling isolated, making the record on my own in my basement, I was outside, collaborating with people on all sorts of different levels."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Playlist: March

    • The War on Drugs—Lost in the Dream (2014)
    • Jimi Goodwin—Odludek (2014)
    • Elbow—The Takeoff and Landing of Everything (2014)
    • Joseph Arthur—Lou (2014)
    • Beck—Morning Phase (2014)
    • The Civil Wars—Between the Bars EP (2014)
    • Real Estate—Atlas (2014)
    • Warpaint—Warpaint (2014), The Fool (2010)
    • Se Delan—The Fall (2014)
    • St. Vincent—Actor (2009), Marry Me (2007)
    • Walter Becker—Monkey Circus (2008)
    • David Bowie—Young Americans (1975), Station to Station (deluxe edition, 1976), Low (1977) 
    • King Crimson—Larks' Tongues in Aspic (1973)
    • Yes—Yes (1969), Time and a Word (1970), The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971), Close to the Edge (1972), Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973), Relayer (1974)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Now on Newsstands: Elbow interview

When I interviewed Elbow's Guy Garvey about the band's sixth studio album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything, he said, "It’s a dense first listen, I will say that, but utterly rewarding." 

The album is, indeed, a grower. At first, I was disappointed that The Take off and Landing of Everything doesn't boast the immediate wow factor of Build a Rocket Boys! tracks such as "The Birds," "Lippy Kids,"  "With Love" and "Neat Little Rows." But now that I've spent some time with the new album, I'm smitten with it. Some of the tracks that initially passed me by, such as "Colour Fields" and "Real Life (Angel)" and "This Blue World" and "Blanket of Night," are now among my favorites. And the single, "New York Morning," will sneak up on you and become your ears' new best friend - take a listen to the music video, below. 

If the album has a weakness it's this: It doesn't take Elbow to too many new places - honorable exceptions "Lunette/Fly Boy Blue" and "The Blanket of Night" - but the band compensates with gorgeous melodies and Guy Garvey's never-more-soulful singing. Indeed, The Take off and Landing of Everything is consistently strong. I love every track. (Tip: Doesn't work well as a background listen. Headphones and a dark space are a must.)

True to Garvey's word, the album is utterly rewarding.

My interview with Guy Garvey about the making of the album is in the new issue of Under the Radar magazine (more details on its contents here), which is now on newsstands or available as an e-version (download the magazine's new app for free.) 

Also, here's a bonus interview I did with the band for the magazine in which Garvey talks about his favorite cities and the songs he associates with each of them.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Playlist: February

    • St. Vincent—St. Vincent (2014)
    • Elbow—The Takeoff and Landing of Everything (2014)
    • East India Youth—Total Strife Forever (2014)
    • Neil Finn—Dizzy Heights (2014)
    • Jesca Hoop—Undress (2014)
    • Shearwater—Missing Islands:Demos & Outtakes 2007-2012 (2014)
    • Suzanne Vega—Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles (2014)
    • Bigelf—Into the Maelstrom (2014)
    • Imogen Heap—Sparks (2014)
    • Don Airey—Keyed Up (2014)
    • John Wesley—Disconnect (2014)
    • Fish—A Feast of Consequences (2013)
    • Portico Quartet—Live (2013)
    • Marillion—Brave (2013)
    • Big Wreck—Albatross (2013)
    • Jonathan Wilson—Gentle Spirit (2011)
    • Field Music—Tones of Town (2007)
    • C.C. Adock—Lafayette Marquis (2004)
    • Ian Brown—Music of the Spheres (2001)
    • Jeff Buckley—Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk (1998)
    • Mansun—Attack of the Grey Lantern (1997)
    • Stevie Ray Vaughan—In Step (1989)
    • Funkadelic—One Nation Under a Groove (1978)
    • Pink Floyd—Ummagumma (1969), Obscured by Clouds (1972)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Now on Newsstands: Neil Finn interview

Rumor has it that Paul McCartney was once asked what it's like to be the greatest songwriter in the world. "I don't know," McCartney reputedly responded, "Go ask Neil Finn."

That was the first thing I asked Neil Finn when I interviewed him for the new issue of American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines.

"I've been told that on numerous occasions, but I've never really gotten to the bottom of when and where he said that," Finn told me. "I have a slight reservation—unless you can inform me otherwise—that it's a popular myth. He may not have said that at all. So, go ask Paul McCartney!"

It doesn't really matter what McCartney might or might not have said. Those who know Finn's work as the songwriter behind Crowded House and, before that, Split Enz, can attest to his superior melodic gifts. He and his brother Tim (a founder of Split Enz) have also recorded two albums as The Finn Brothers. Finn side projects includes the The Pajama Club and two albums with The Seven World Collide collective, which includes members of Radiohead and Wilco and artists such as Johnny Marr and KT Tunstall.

Finn has just released his third solo album, Dizzy Heights. It is one of the pinnacles of Finn's remarkable career and shares the rarefied air of previous peaks such as Crowded House's Together Alone and his solo debut Try Whistling This. It's also a new sound for the songwriter. Producer Dave Fridmann (Mogwai, Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) helped Finn create a sound that's more lush, orchestral and experimental.

“With this record, I was aware of trying to upset some expectations,” Finn said. “I think that’s a good thing after all these years.”

To achieve that new sound, Finn changed up the way he wrote songs.

“I enjoy the process of editing," he said. "Now that I know how to operate ProTools, I have more of an arsenal at my fingertips. It enables me to come up with an atmosphere and then forming a song around it, so the way songs are forming is often back to front.”

You can read more about the making of Dizzy Heights, which is now in stores, in my interview at American Way. And take a listen to the videos embedded in this blog post for a small taste of the feast of the album itself.

Finn will be touring the album this year (see tour dates here). After that, who knows? He's recently been writing new songs with his brother Tim. And Crowded House will return to action at some point, too.

“We did start some recording on the Crowded House front and I think there are some strong things in the cupboard that will see the light of day at some point," Finn said. "But I just started these other songs and they seemed more urgent to me and not necessarily suited to Crowded House. The decision of what to call things or what entity to use is slightly confusing to people - even for me, it’s confusing – because there’s some history attached to each entity. But, to some extent, I try not to think about it too much."

Indeed, it's best to regard Finn's work as a continuous whole, regardless of the name of the project. He's one of the best songwriters out there, as Paul McCartney would surely attest.

Now on Newsstands: Bigelf interview

During the 1960s, Laurel Canyon developed a reputation as an enclave for folk and rock musicians seeking quiet sanctuary from the hustle bustle of Los Angeles. But on the drive up to the studio of Bigelf, a single neon-lit peace sign on the roadside was the sole reminder of a time when Laurel Canyon was more hippie than yuppie. The band, a trio that has been recording its distinctive psychedelic-pop prog, has long been based here.

"When we recording Money Machine and the demos for Hex, we lived across the street from from the garage where The Who used to rehearse in the '60s," bandleader Damon Fox told me. "Laurel Canyon has a vibe and, if that energy is inside you, then you channel it."

On assignment for Prog magazine, I interviewed the band about Into the Maelstrom, its long-awaited followup to its last album, 2008's Cheating the Gallows. During the interim, Bigelf underwent significant lineup changes. "For Bigelf to survive, it had to be torn apart and put back together," Fox said. Indeed, the band has endured more setbacks and struggles than most bands, which I chronicled in my article. As they put it, "Our Behind the Music special would be pretty devastating." 

The resulting album is a triumph. Bigelf recruited drummer Mike Portnoy to guest on drums and recorded its best produced and most forward-looking album to date. Seek it out when its released March 3 on InsideOut. And, in the meantime, read the latest issue of Prog, currently filtering onto newsstands (including Barnes & Noble in the US) and available as an e-magazine via iTunes and Google Play.

Monday, January 06, 2014

My interview with Kristen Bell

I interviewed Kristen Bell for the cover of the current issue of American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines. (Here's a link to the online version. Note that the story ends of page 7 but there's also a sidebar on page 8.)

It was a nerve-wrecking assignment. The publicist only gave me 60 minutes to interview Kristen. I was told that the interview would take place entirely in her trailer. After that I was to leave the set of her television show House of Lies. I was nervous that I wouldn't get enough interview material for the in-depth piece, let alone any color for it.

That was before I met Kristen. She was so welcoming and warm. She gave me 75 minutes, shooing away people who wanted to curtail our time. And then she spontaneously asked if I'd like to just hang out on the set for the rest of the day. I got to watch her film a scene which gave me a great lede for the story. She spent the entire time with me when she wasn't filming. By then, we were well past the actual interview and just chatted for hours and hours about everything from her trip to South Africa to Breaking Bad to life with her new baby - who is incredibly cute. (Kristen is protecting her daughter from public view, but she was happy to show photos to everyone on set.) 

She's a blast to hang out with - as genuinely lovely as you hope and nothing fake about her either. 

And the Veronica Mars movie sounds very promising.  I asked Kristen about how, on the one hand, the movie has to cater to the hard-core fans of the TV show and, on the other hand, it has to stand on its own for people who have never seen it. How on earth did creator and writer Rob Thomas approach that task?

Kristen's response: 

He does it brilliantly, as he does everything. But if I had to choose who he’s writing for more, without question it’s for the long-term fans. He has chosen to disregard exposition that may or may not be necessary for new viewers because we didn’t make this movie for new viewers. We feel that people will want to watch it, knowing nothing about the show, and it’s important that we keep that in mind. But ultimately, the people we are working for are the people who funded it – our long-term fans. Everyone else is irrelevant. Even the studio is irrelevant, to be honest with you, because Rob raised the money through Kickstarter, he was able to do what he wanted. He had complete creative control. Rob is a very unselfish writer because he doesn’t write what he wants. He writes what he know will light a fire under the fans. He writes what you want to see. I think that’s what makes him such a good writer. 

Can't wait for the release of the Veronica Mars movie on March 14!

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Best Music of 2013

In the past, I've compiled numbered lists of my favorite albums of that year. I've decided not to do that this time around. Quite simply, I'm not sure how to rank and compare albums from genres as divergent as prog, indie rock, jazz, blues, folk, electronica, pop, world music and classic rock. Nor is there much point to such an exercise. This year, I've decided to limit myself to noting my 21 favorite albums of the past 12 months. They aren't listed in order of preference, though I will say that my absolute favorite record of the year was Steven Wilson's The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories). I've hyperlinked to the albums I've reviewed or written about.

The video of the top of this post is for Vertical Horizon's "Instamatic," featuring Rush's Neil Peart on drums. (Look carefully and you'll spot me lurking in the background of the video.) It was my great pleasure to write the sleeve notes for Vertical Horizon's Echoes from the Underground this year. Matt Scannell, the band's singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer, created the best Vertical Horizon album to date, full of fresh stylistic departures in the band's pop sound. It's one of the year's most consistently strong records.

Best Studio Albums

The Besnard LakesIn Excess, Imperceptible UFO
Boards of Canada—Tomorrow's Harvest 
David BowieThe Next Day
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds—Push the Sky Away 
Elvis Costello and The Roots—Wise Up Ghost
Francis Dunnery—Frankenstein Monster 
Nils Frahm—Spaces
John GrantPale Green Ghosts 
Patty GriffinAmerican Kid
Laura MarlingOnce I Was an Eagle
Queens Of the Stone Age—…Like Clockwork
Rovo and System 7 (feat. Steve Hillage)—Phoenix Rising
Otis TaylorMy World is Gone
Richard Thompson—Electric
Emiliana Torrini—Tookah
Rokia TraorĂ©—Beautiful Africa
Jonathan Wilson—Fanfare
Steven Wilson—The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)
Laura Veirs—Warp and Weft
Vertical Horizon—Echoes from the Underground 
Anna Von Hausswolff—Ceremony

Best Live Album
Portico Quartet—Live/Remix

Best Soundtrack album
Boss, Original Soundtrack—Brian Reitzell

Best Covers album
ShearwaterFellow Travelers

Best Reissue
Yes—Studio albums box set, 1969-1987

And, finally, my Song of the Year (at least, one that wasn't penned by Steven Wilson), may just be Amplifier's "Matmos." (The parent album, Echo Street, is good, but a little uneven.) Here, below, is the video.