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Photo by Frank Ockenfels

For singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile, confidence is key.
“The level of rejection [you] experience [in] music can be devastating,” she says. “You need an underlying sense of self worth to persevere.”
And persevere Carlile has.
“I was passed on by every record label at least once - some three times,” she says.
In Chicago to play the Chicago Theatre last week, Carlile spoke with Our Town about touring, her new marriage, and tenacity in the face of rejection.

Our Town You convinced your bandmates to work with you by promising them you’d be signed and on the road within a year. What made you so certain?
Brandi Carlile What made me so certain was a completely unprecedented and underlying sense of cockiness. But at 19 years old I really believed that I could do whatever I put my mind to, plus the twins were so good, I knew it would be more like them getting me signed and on the road within a year!

OT How has your writing (both process and content) changed over the course of your career? 
BC Naturally, as one gets older, the content of a song is based a bit more on experience and less speculative than songs from your early twenties and late teens. The really challenging thing is performing these songs in light of a wiser outlook and trying to make sense of early opinions; retrospect definitely is 20/20.


OT Obviously at this point listeners pick and choose, downloading only certain songs. What does it mean to create at this point in history when people’s attention spans are shorter than ever?
BC My objective isn’t to acquire listeners in a cultish sense, my objective is only to be blessed with the opportunity to interrupt someone’s life for three and a half minutes at a time and make them happy or reflective. I don’t worry too much about the climate of the music industry, so to speak, because humans have needed music for much longer that we’ve known how to sell it. As far as live music goes, no device will ever be able to cheapen the connections between people in a room.


OT What’s your favorite song off your most recent record and why?
BC It’s ever-changing, but if I’m looking back at Bear Creek ten years from now and asking myself which song moves me the most, it would be “That Wasn’t Me.”



OT You recently got married. How do you juggle career and relationship?
BC With complete and utter co-dependence. No I’m just kidding, who really knows?

Get JIPed

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Back in 2001, JIP was a one man project, just Chicago musician James Gwynn and his vision. Over the last three years however, JIP had grown into a three piece rock band. James Gwynn had a quick chat with Our Town about his influences and the group’s style.

Our Town JIP started as a solo project and grew to a three piece band. How did that evolution work? 
James Gwynn Everything changed with the 2011 release JIP: Year X.  I took that record into the Million Yen Studios (home of my favorite band Local H).  After that record and a successful double acoustic tour I knew the band needed to be bigger and louder.  I met drummer, Mike Charbonneauvia, a friend and bassist Joe D'onofrio is my wife's cousin.  It came together to be a loving family. [We’re sharper] with every practice and show. 

OT Who are your influences and how do they inform your work? 
JG My influences run from Local H to Ben Folds to Tracy Bonham and Bush.  The nineties alternative rock scene really hit me--how different the same genre of music could be.  I didn't play cover songs until we started touring Year X so those influences [relate] to emotion and lyrics rather than song style. 

OT What inspires you as a songwriter? 
JG The pursuit of happiness and relaying a message in a simple form.  Music is great because you can talk over really serious topics in a fun way.  My mission as JIP has always been to make simple songs with a strong message.  So that inspires me and life experiences find their way to become themes.  For example Sparks,

OT How has your writing process evolved knowing you’re writing for a group rather than solo work? 
JG It's oddly similar.  I've always written lyrics first and pieced them together by singing and finding guitar [parts].   Now I'll bring that same process to the guys and they add their layers. It's important to me that the guys make these songs their own and we adjust until we are all happy.

OT What can audiences expect from your upcoming gig at Hard Rock Chicago
JG Fun.  A great set of new and old JIP songs.  We want you to have a great time and be part of our set.  We have a special guest set for the show and it's going to be a blast.  We understand how great of an opportunity we have to play Hard Rock and plan on making the most of it.

Check out JIP's show this Friday October 12th at Hard Rock Chicago.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez
and Facebook.


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Jazzy Chicagoan Jennifer Hall writes music that combines youthful exuberance and old fashioned sincerity. Hailing from the Chicago suburbs, Hall is a versatile vocalist influenced by the likes of Edith Piaf and Ray Charles. Her new album, “In This” provides a snappy blend of pop, jazz and soul. Our Town spoke with Hall about the Chicago music scene, her writing and um, Glee.

Our Town You count jazz as an influence. How does that express itself in your writing?
Jennifer Hall Throughout high school I listened to a lot of old jazz standards sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. I loved the way Ella would linger on certain notes or hold her  phrases  almost as if she were stripping the emotion out of the words. I love how in jazz you are allowed to play around with the rhythm  and then catch up later.  Ben, our keys player and Mat, our drummer also happen to be excellent jazz players. Their parts definitely reveal their jazz influences.

OT How does the band write?
JH It feels great to say that the ways the songs are being written lately are changing.  Before, I would  bring lyrics and melody to our guitarist, Noam. He would write chords and do the arranging. Now our writing process has diversified and every band member contributes. 

OT Do you feel more at home as a songwriter or performer, or do both experiences inform each other?
JH Coming from musical theater and choir growing up, I think I will always feel more at home as a performer, although I am embracing writing more as time goes on.

OT Right, you grew up participating in choir and show choir.
JH I learned how to have strong work ethic in that the best songs didn't come easy but required immense focus and a great deal of work.  Those things have really stayed with me almost ten years later and have shaped how I approach making music.

OT Okay, but is show choir anything like Glee?
JH It was a blast. We did shows for the local elementary schools, nursing homes, community events.  Although I've only seen Glee a few times it seems like it was pretty similar! There was definitely some high school drama, plenty of young love  but mostly it was about people coming together to sing and have fun. 

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OT What’s your favorite aspect of the Chicago music scene?
JH The Chicago music scene is really supportive. From the talent buyers, to the artists to the concert goers, everyone seems to really appreciate one another and sees how we all need each other to have a great night of music.

OT Favorite venue?
JH If I meet someone out of town who needs something to do for the evening I send them to The Metro or Lincoln Hall.  At Lincoln Hall the food is incredible and the staff is so friendly.  Metro has  a beautiful stage and the sound is awesome.  

OT I’ve heard the national anthem is pretty vocally tough. What was it like to sing it at Wrigley Field?
JH I guess it is tough because the range is pretty wide. This year,  I brought a pitch pipe to Wrigley Field to make sure I started off on the right note!  It was a such a great evening, singing there this year. The Cubs staff was so helpful and supportive.  I hope to be back next year.

Jennifer Hall plays The Metro August 31st at 8 p.m.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez
and Facebook.

 

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Over the last decade, psychedelic laser rock band Catacombz has mutated like a comic book super villain. Its current incarnation may be its strongest yet. The Milwaukee band hits Lincoln Hall, June 26th along with Young Man and Mines. Catacombz synth player Sam La Strapes spoke with Our Town about lasers, Miley Cyrus and Unicorns.

Our Town What's the story behind your band's name?
Sam La Strapes The name has taken a new meaning that reflects our style of searching for inspiration; which is to say, by digging through the shallow graves of forgotten (at least by popular standards) sub-cultures to assemble a sort of Frankenstein’s monster sound. Now that I think of it, that description could be applied to a lot of today’s music.

OT Your music is about more than a sound, it’s about an experience. How do you go about providing that to an audience?
SL We have a seizure inducing light show and we’re loud as f*ck. I guess it’s inspired by unremembered nostalgia for the raves and Electric Kool-Aid parties we never got to experience ourselves.

OT Who are your some of your unexpected musical influences, in other words, who would fans be surprised to hear you are influenced by?
SL Speaking as somewhat of an outsider in a band of brothers, it’s no easy job finding the common denominator for our shared influences. But I can say we all love CCR, Big Freedia, The Shirelles, and Twin Peaks.

OT Do you consider yourselves part of a larger cultural scene or community?
SL Our community is comprised of brothers and sisters of the vibe that are geographically distant, but our mind meld is tight. And there’s always the internet.

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I’m afraid to interview musicians. Not because a lot of them smell weird. Because of all the rules. I’ve mentioned before how when my sister was ten she told me Green Day had sold out. Actually, she sang the words to the tune of “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” a move both snotty and in-the-know. Though eight years her senior, I thought maybe Green Day were the ones fronted by the guy with the giant bald head and I couldn’t figure why success was a bad thing.

It’s not that I don’t believe in rules. Once my Significant Other claimed that for a book, painting or film to have artistic worth, only ONE person must enjoy it. First I asked her, “what if that person is Aaron Spelling?” And then I stopped talking to her until I couldn’t find my favorite pair of shoes at which point I had to talk to her but just to ask if she’d seen them.

In my view, to create quality art, one must learn the rules if only to break from them. But when it comes to music, the rules seem somehow arbitrary. I don’t understand what makes something “good.”

Here’s what I like: passion, intelligence and drums.
Here’s what I hate: 80’s saxophone solos, the word “shawty” and Maroon Five.

The Kickback has all of the former and none of the latter plus Rolling Stone says they “conjure the very best parts of the Veils and the Walkmen and the Killers, writing lean, nervy songs that snarl and snap.”

I don’t know who any of those people are, but I interviewed The Kickback guitarist Billy Yost and he smells just fine!

Our Town How would you describe your sound?
Billy Yost I use [this] as something to aspire to: the Zombies listening to Jeff Buckley listening to a moderately-talented church choir listening to The Beatles in the “back to basics” stage of their career who would stay together long enough to be influenced by the Sales brothers who wound up backing Iggy Pop in the “Berlin era.” Our tunes wouldn’t express that at all, at the moment, however. So, I guess you can consider this an opportunity to get in on the ground level. I sound like Bernie Madoff.  

OT Who are your influences?
BY Randy Newman, music from "classic period" Muppet film and television, David Foster Wallace, Iggy Pop, unresolved Catholicism, 1989's Batman, a lot of older brothers, people who use harmony well. 

OT How did growing up in South Dakota inform your music?
BY My main connection to music for the first decade or so of my life was mostly informed by drives to Sioux Falls from Beresford and back--a 30-mile trip each way. My mom would have the radio tuned almost exclusively to '50s and '60s oldies. That's where I learned about harmony and developed a love for melody. I think [South Dakota] also rooted us with a healthy Midwestern guilt that tends to set off warning bells when I find myself using phrases like "our aesthetic" or "sushi."

OT Your brother Danny is part of the band. What’s it like to work so closely with a sibling?
BY Pros- He gets it already. Cons- That doesn't mean he has to like it and then you're dealing with 25 years of subtle jabbing, from the hair-pulling incident at Mt. Rushmore (age 7) to present day. 

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I may not be the best person to interview Mike McPadden. He’s a Metallica expert, I grew up on Sondheim and Lilith Fair. He’s been happily employed by the likes of Hustler, and I majored in Womens Studies. But what can I say? McPadden gives great interview. He spoke with Our Town about everything from his new book, If You Like Metallica... (Backbeat Books) to why Playboy has all those pesky articles.

Our Town You seem to be a heavy metal aficionado. What originally drew you to the genre?
Mike McPadden From toddler-hood on, I was a horror movie fanatic; heavy metal is a natural musical transition. I loved KISS and was terrified by them. That commingling of love and terror has driven a lot of my life. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York in the ’70s, so I developed an interest in punk rock at a very early age. I went to see the Ramones when I was 11. But by the time I got to high school, wimpy European New Wave had supplanted punk. I’d see classmates wearing Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys shirts, but they were actually listening to Depeche Mode and Spandau Ballet. As a result, I reactively embraced whatever a fan of, say, Echo and the Bunnymen would find most repulsive—and that drove me straight back to metal. As I got closer to college in 1986, I veered back toward punk because of the very metal-influenced stuff being done by bands like the Butthole Surfers, Black Flag, and Redd Kross. Then one sunny afternoon I saw a gorgeous punk girl with a Mohawk and some very shocking piercings—for the mid-’80s—bobbling underneath her Metallica “Ride the Lightning” shirt. I walked right up to Tower Records, bought Metallica’s Master of Puppets on cassette and fell in love with that album and that band.

OT So, I know nothing about Metallica. Give me a one paragraph crash course.
MM Metallica emerged from the San Francisco area in 1982 with a shocking sound that combined metal and punk—at a time when the two forms opposed one another—and thereby invented the genre known as thrash. Metallica’s first four albums are revered as masterpieces of extreme rock. In 1991, the same year that grunge broke, Metallica reinvented itself with a more radio-friendly sound. During the ’90s, Metallica soared in the mainstream, but drew scorn from their original supporters. When Metallica sued Napster in 2000, they became known as “the band most hated by its own fans.” The 2008 documentary Some Kind of Monster depicts the group members in deep crisis. In 2010, Metallica came back with a great album, Death Magnetic, and followed up with a bizarre Lou Reed experiment titled Lulu. This June, Metallica will headline its own weekend rock festival in Atlantic City. A new album is scheduled for next year.

OT Consider me schooled. The If You Like series invites experts to write about their field of expertise. What qualifies you?

MM My writing career began in 1991, when I started publishing a Xeroxed ’zine titled Happyland. The subject matter was sleazy living in the last days of New York as a dangerous place, and it included plenty of music coverage. For a hard rock fan, that was a really weird time, Underground heroes Metallica and Nirvana, to name two, were conquering MTV and the pop charts. It was also a golden age of hyper-aggressive music from the Amphetamine Reptile label and a lot of Chicago noise bands. So I wrote about all that. From there, I penned music reviews for a number of publications, including the New York Press, Black Book, and even Screw. I have also written chapter-length essays in books [including] Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth (Feral House, 2001) and The Official Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Book of Lists (Soft Skull, 2012).Yes, I am also a bubblegum pop fanatic. I like any music that’s really up front about what it wants to do to you. Indie rock is a sham!

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All photos by Patty Michels

Most know Amy Ray as half of the enduring folk group Indigo Girls; however, it’s Ray’s solo work, ardent and propulsive, to which I’m especially drawn. Often erroneously described as the dark or angry Indigo Girl, Ray seems neither, though her newest album, Lung of Love, continues to cultivate a punk rock ethos, the perfect backdrop for Ray’s frenetic messiness. Yet like much of Ray, that messiness is in part painstaking. An apt example: years back, we discussed the fact that she uses a voice lesson system to refine her rock n’ roll scream. That’s Ray in a nutshell; a performer who knows herself well enough to consciously become herself, a sort of disciplined discovery. Her slant on punk, though more melodious and sometimes Appalachian influenced, is loyal to the genre’s stripped-down essence. Punk’s hard-edged ferocity, Ray’s easy access to passion, both are born of heartfelt engagement. So in a way, maybe Ray’s angry rep isn’t unfounded. Maybe anger is the consequence of earnestness met with life experience, and punk is the fiercer side of folk; like Ray herself, still questing and earnest but rambunctiously so.

Our Town You’ve been writing songs for years. Can you pinpoint a moment when you became more meticulous, for example, about imagery or word choice?
Amy Ray Yeah. When I started making solo records [it] freed up the Indigo Girls avenue a bit because it [didn’t] have the burden of expressing every part of myself. I had this other road and I got excited by that compartmentalized vision [but] I had to figure out a way to be prolific. Emily is a pretty prolific writer, so if I wanted to meet her in the middle I had to work harder. I started talking to other songwriters about their writing, reading books about writing. A few really changed my discipline. One was Stephen King’s book, On Writing. Even though he’s a novelist, his discipline, his approach, the way he looks at creativity, that had the biggest impact on me. And then Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird. I started taking those things to heart and really created a discipline. I’d be like, this year I’m going to write five days a week, a few hours a day--and I really did it, stuck to it. And then I started working on imagery and melody. If I couldn’t get somewhere on the melody I would go to Mitchell Froom, a producer that works with Indigo Girls and talk to him about a melody, or Greg Griffith, my fellow producer on the last record--he co-wrote four songs with me because I got to a wall. I started being willing to reach out for help to learn more. It was gradual, but my first solo record just opened up my world because if I wasn’t going to sit down and have a discipline, I was never going to be able to write enough songs for Indigo Girls and solo work.

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With Matt Lipkins

OT Writing prose, you can’t just shift the point of view midstream, not without reason anyway, and it makes a statement when you do. But songwriters seem to do that. For example, you do it in Beauty Queen Sister and Dairy Queen-so maybe point of view shifts are acceptable in songs with the word queen in the title--but I’m wondering are there rules governing point of view shifts in songwriting?
AR That’s a really great question. I think about that when I’m writing; can I change perspectives and how do I make it clear that a different voice is coming in? In a story, the author points out the perspective changes: a person speaks and you recognize in quotation marks that that person is speaking. Or there’s a chapter that’s from this person’s perspective and the next is from another’s. Faulkner does that a lot. But in a song it’s important to be short-spoken instead of long-spoken so I might do that without using ‘he said’ or ‘she said.’ Maybe instead the tone of voice changes because the perspective is changing. I don’t think of “are there rules to this?” because I think songwriting--or even all writing-- should be free in that way. The point is to get the story across, not to obscure. Sometimes if there are different perspectives in a song someone can find themselves entering into the song in a different place, which I like. But there are probably really accomplished songwriters, maybe Nick Cage or Joni Mitchell who don’t do that. I’ll have to think about that. That’s a great question.

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OT I don’t think it’s necessarily negative in songwriting. Sometimes it provides--like you’re saying-- space for people to understand a song in a lot of different ways.
AR Although the negative part might be that sometimes as a songwriter you just want to say so many different things and you want to say them so bad that you get lazy and you just plop it all into a song and don’t worry about how it shifts. I mean, I know what you mean, but when friends pass demos around and I hear a perspective shift in their lyrics if it’s not something that is smooth or has a point, it feels lazy to me and I’ll say something about it. If they ask me.

OT I asked Facebook fans to submit questions for you. First one: What are your favorite local restaurants when you tour, places you return to?
AR It’s funny you’re asking that because... Chicago Diner. I always go there.
OT They have the best guacamole.
AR The guacamole and chips, I know, it’s incredible. There’s a place in San Francisco called Gratitude I always go. In Seattle there are a million amazing Thai restaurants so I try different ones. I usually go for either Thai, Indian or some kind of specialty vegetarian place. And I like Mexican restaurants that are like, number menu type places. In New York there’s a place called East Village Thai I always go. Every city I have places I go if I’m there long enough.

OT Wait, now I have a question. Are you weird about eating before shows?
AR I’m not weird about that. I don’t have any needs around that. I do like to make sure I eat but it doesn’t matter when and it doesn’t matter what. I’m sort of hearty that way. I can eat a big meal and go right on and play and it’s fine. As a singer, I should worry about cheese, but I don’t. I take care of my voice in other ways. When you’re on a solo tour it’s an accomplishment if you get dinner--you’re loading and sound checking and trying to make all these things happen. It’s really great when we play somewhere that has a restaurant as part of the place, cause then you can just order off their menu and it’s sitting there in your dressing room.

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OT One more fan question. You’ve mentioned making a country album next, is that true and what would it entail?
AR It is true. It’s probably going to entail a couple of years cause I’m so slow and I’m probably going to want to do another Indigo Girls album before that. I have a tape machine at my house and some really great mics and I’m probably going to track a lot of it here. I live in an area where there’s a lot of bluegrass players. It’s probably going to entail that tradition-- Appalachian, country sound. I take my inspiration from early Americana, artists like Townes Van Zandt. And then country people like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. I’ll probably listen to a bunch of Dolly Parton before I do it.

OT As a performer, there’s a way that you have to be deliberate about packaging, and promoting yourself. How do you balance that and also maintain a healthy sense of self?
AR Right, like at this moment I’m working on “Amy’s” bio. Especially now when so many artists have their own labels and are putting themselves out, they have to step out of themselves to package and promote. And also be detached from criticism and praise both; don’t get led astray one way or the other. I’ve always put out my own records so I have a little trick I use inside my head, because I hate self-promotion. You have to look at it as if you’re a different person from the person you are. I don’t like looking at photos from a photo shoot [or] trying to write a bio so I’ll get friends to do my shoots and sit down with them, work on it as a team. For my bios, the same thing. I get someone who is a friend and a really good writer, hand it over and then I kind of edit after that. I look at it like, I really want to play music, I love writing songs and I love touring, and in order to do all that I have to do this other thing to keep it in that sweet spot where it sustains itself. As long as I’m honest about it, give back to the community, look for ways to help other people, that makes me feel like I’m doing it for the right reasons so I can work really hard because I’m not achieving just for celebrity. That would be an empty pursuit for me. And ultimately that would catch up because at some point you’re not famous anymore and if you’re too caught up, you grieve it. I’ve been through that part of things with Emily, where we toured with REM and everything was really heady and my ego definitely was inflated. I went through a period where my goals and my intentions got a little screwy and I had to kind of come back down to earth.

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“You just saw me run out of my Travelers Zen,” Dar Williams tells me after the second time she’s forced to hang up and call me back. In the midst of forty eight hours of layovers, cancelled flights and delays, it’s no wonder the singer/songwriter is stressed. However, even under pressure, on tour to promote her ninth studio album, Williams is as earnest and genuine as her fans might expect. Between interruptions, Williams tried valiantly to discuss folk music’s connection to social justice, tips from Joan Baez and the greening of American towns.

Our Town In the Time of Gods, like most of your albums, seems to coalesce around a theme. Obviously the public’s relationship to music has changed with technology. Instead of buying and listening to a whole album the way an artist might envision it, most people pick and choose. I’m wondering if that’s changed the way you conceptualize your work.
Dar Williams A song versus an album is not like a scene versus a play. It’s more like, you can always enjoy a painting in a museum, but if you go to a retrospective or a planned exhibit it’s that much better because the setup allows you to get inside somebody else’s head. Even though there’s an integrated theme, I hope that each of the songs can hold up apart from one another.

OT You write when inspiration strikes rather than having a daily writing practice. Is that an approach you advocate for others?
DW You can never presume what will work for other people. You’ll almost encounter a superstition amongst musicians, people sort of go through strange rituals, what they need to do to write a song. The only thing I’ve noticed is that the friends of mine who write every day struggle just as much as I do, just in a different way. And they have more stuff that they throw out, which is fine. It’s hard for me to create anything that isn’t somehow interesting to me. So instead of saying I’m going to write a song about the set of bowls that my aunt gave me because that’s what I’m looking at, I wait for the thing to find me, the theme or the subject. However, there is a daily practice to holding an open enough mind to receive such a thing. So, that’s a practice.

OT Are there any songs you feel have helped you advance as a writer?
DW There’s a song called "February" where I was developing this metaphor and then suddenly the metaphor just broke open into reality. My sister and I have spoken about this because she’s a writer and we basically said, the story is more important than the metaphor. You can get very academic, but at the end of the day, your heart is in the story. Writing February made me realize that breaking form is a way of letting the song be human.

OT You’ve moved back and forth between songwriting and novel writing. How are the experiences different?
DW They’re really different. The book writing, I did show up for every day, and I always looked forward to it because I knew that whatever I was feeling I could find a part of the book that would fit my mood. So if I was feeling wistful, angry, frustrated, excited there was always a character who could absorb that. Writing a book wasn’t like that kind of fine motor skills of writing a song-- really parsing things out, phrasing them and rhyming them, and oh by the way, what’s the song about? It was a really rewarding experience. Inevitably I always felt better at the end of a writing session and always felt glad that I’d sat down. It was creativity without all the frustration of getting things painstakingly, poetically tight.

OT When you get an idea how do you know whether it wants to be a song or a book?
DW Its a pretty clear line. There are long cinematic things that come into my head and then there’s very specific phrases that will pop in and those are clearly meant to be as long and short as a song.

OT There are certain performers who you go to see not just for the music but for the relationships-and to hear what they’ll say. I’m thinking of Girlyman and The Nields Sisters. You’re also someone who talks and shares and is funny onstage. I interviewed Nerissa recently and I want to ask you the same question I asked her: was relating to the audience in a really casual, funny way a conscious decision, or did that evolve for you?
DW That was very much the world that I was in in Cambridge and New York at the time. You know, John Gorka and Patty Larkin and Greg Brown. The early nineties were all about something bigger than just the songs, that would make the songs bigger. It was not a way to deflect; it was a way to bring it all together. The first concert I saw was Cheryl Wheeler. Cheryl sang eight songs in an hour and fifteen minute set. Usually you can do about twelve in that time. And even Jane Siberry, who will sing a song that can be up to ten minutes and can be very meditative, she’ll say just enough in between songs, so this idea that you can kind of weave it together. Or Loreena Mckennitt, she did this beautiful piece and I thought, this is going to be a very musical thing and she’s going to preserve her mystique by not speaking; she spoke right after the first song and was so lovely. I think people want to know where it comes from. It’s an elemental thing. We like to find the connection to the source of a song. The singer/songwriter tradition preserves something that people like, and it’s different than any other genre.

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If you haven’t heard of The Retar Crew your life is meaningless. Okay, maybe not meaningless but definitely lacking in dick jokes and Shakespearian influenced Hip-Hop. While Retar Crew members The Q Brothers created Chicago hit Funk it UP About Nothin (by the q bros/CST/Richard Jordan productions), an urban “hip-hoptation” of the Bard’s classic comedy Much Ado About Nothing, The Retar Crew as a whole is perhaps more famous for the internet sensation "No Homo." But whether updating Shakespeare or slyly skewering the same people who embrace their music, The Retar Crew remains fresh, silly and unexpectedly shrewd. This May, all four members are involved in the much anticipated Othello The Remix which goes up at London’s Globe Theater, but first, member Jackson Doran spoke with Our Town about humor both high and lowbrow.

Our Town How did you get involved with Funk it UP About Nothin’?
Jackson Doran In 2007 I was freestyling drunkenly at a party to the repeat of the Napoleon Dynamite DVD menu when another guest joined me and basically slaughtered me with his skills. I never saw the gentlemen again until about a year later, I was drinking bourbon by myself at my local pub and noticed another fellow a few stools down also drinking bourbon alone.  It was the same guy from the party.  I was like, "JQ?" and he was all, "Jackson?" and for the next two hours we proceeded to play the Megatouch game where you are a polar bear trying to hit a fish as far as you can with a baseball bat.  JQ remembered I could "rap" and that I was a struggling Chicago actor.  He had written a play with his brother, Funk It Up About Nothin,' which adapted Shakespeare into hip hop. JQ said he would get me an audition and I [told] him not to blow smoke up my ass.  Two days later I got a call from Chicago Shakespeare.

OT What makes Shakespeare and Hip Hop such a good fit?
JD Shakespeare and rap actually use many of the same poetic and rhetorical devices.  GQ always says if Shakespeare were alive today he would be a rapper.  

OT How do you go about transforming Shakespeare?
JD J and G as "The Q Brothers" write the hip-hop adaptations of Shakespeare.  They go through and translate line by line to make the whole play into rhyming couplets. From there, the play goes through anywhere from 20 to 40 drafts. [It’s] transformed into a new conceptual rap form of the same story, usually a condensed version and very fast paced.  Since this style of theater is relatively new, the form is being adapted as we create more pieces.  
 
OT And The Retar Crew grew out of your experiences doing the show?
JD While in Edinburgh [where Funk It Up About Nothin,' won best musical at the Fringe Festival] JQ and I began writing little refrains about our experiences abroad--the Fringe Fest is a pool of art and debauchery. When we returned, out of depression and boredom, we began to develop our little ditties into real songs. We asked JQ's brother GQ and their long time collaborator and friend, Postell Pringle to write verses on the songs.  After six months we had ten tracks about sex and drinking to complete an album. The Retar Crew* was formed.

OT I have to ask how you got your name and, seriously, why?
JD The first time JQ and GQ let me come on stage for their set at  Lollapolooza-- they perform at the kids stage every year--I rapped about having fun and getting crazy and rocking the mic real hard. Then in front of hundreds of kids I almost rhymed "hard" with "retard" and stopped myself before I could finish the ‘d.’  We never mention or write about mental disabilities and indeed one of our mission statements has become to kill the stigma and hate that words can cause. We are against political correctness and stretch the boundaries of appropriateness in a satirical way.  Needless to say its been a rough road trying to go mainstream.

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Abraham Levitan’s show compels me, which is why I’m writing about it, but it also confuses me so I’ll let him explain.

Our Town So what's the show's premise?
Abraham Levitan I'll try to explain this as simply as possible, which is a little tricky in the case of Shame That Tune. Each show features three contestants, who come onstage one at a time for about 10 minutes each. First, they spin a Wheel-of-Fortune-style wheel, divided among various musical sub-genres. (Recent categories include R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet", Dixie Chicks, Twisted Sister, and Glenn Miller.) Then the contestant spends 3 minutes telling an embarrassing anecdote -- the best contestants usually read straight from a junior-high diary. Then my co-host, Brian Costello (who's a novelist, Reader contributor, and drummer in a great band called Outer Minds), interviews them for 4 minutes. And at the end of the interview, I perform a song about their anecdote, in the style chosen by the wheel. At the end of the whole show, the audience votes for its favorite contestant, via a Human Applause-O-Meter.

OT How was the show conceived?
AL I have a little bit of a history doing these instant-response songs -- I used to do them for a reading series at The Hideout called The Dollar Store, and I've done them for a few WBEZ events too. Meanwhile, Brian used to have his own live talk show at the Empty Bottle. So, it's kind of a fusion our backgrounds. We wanted to make it a game show because we feel like there are already a large number of awesome reading series in Chicago, and this was our way of doing something distinctive.

OT You have a number of regulars—what does each person bring?
AL Aside from Brian and me, we have two regulars onstage at all times. Our intern is played by Jeanine O'Toole (The 1900's, Bare Mutants, and a host of other bands/projects). In her other projects, Jeanine is confident and charismatic. But on this show, she plays a bumbling intern, incapable of adjusting a mic stand without turning it into a huge physical-comedy event. She's excellent. It's basically a non-speaking role. Our other regular, a new addition, is Nick Rouley, a Chicago stand-up. He plays the Life Coach, who guides our contestants with some very West Coast-flavored self-help shtick. He also lights incense sticks when the guests are running long with their stories -- sort of our version of the orchestra starting to play at the Oscars.

OT What’s it like to have to write a song in four minutes?
AL You'd think it would be stressful -- but I actually don't feel that way. The song was written in four minutes -- of course it's gonna be terrible! Any time I start to clam up, I just think, "This is supposed to be really bad," and things start moving again. I also have two cocktails beforehand, which is helpful.

OT How are contestants chosen?
AL Initially they were drawn from our circle of friends -- mostly fellow musician dudes/dudettes, since both Brian and I play in bands. As the show has grown, we've had more stand-up comics as contestants, which is awesome. Whenever we have a contestant on the show, we ask them for recommendations for future contestants.

OT Why tell teenage anecdotes?
AL Most of our contestants are in their 30's, with maybe a little spillover into late 20's, early 40's, etc. By this point in the game, the hope is that we can laugh at our adolescence. Or, if we're still traumatized by it, maybe reading about it in public can be a kind of exorcism. I guess from the pure comedy perspective, adolescence is the most direct shot to embarrassment.

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Check out any edgy Chicago institution and musician Miki Greenberg is somewhere in the mix. A writer, pianist and singer, Greenberg has had a hand in everything from the Lunar Cabaret to Curious Theater Branch to This American Life to art-punk band World Gone Mad. He even spent twelve years running The Old Town School of Folk Music’s café. Now Greenberg is back performing after a four year hiatus and along with new band mates Elizabeth Breen, Lindsay Weinberg and Jason McInnes, he’s released Havin’ Stuff and Bein’ Pretty. He spoke with Our Town about his influences, wide-ranging career, and his new band, It’s a Girl.

Our Town Tell me about your new album.
Miki Greenberg With "It's A Girl" we wanted to do a project that was positive and sweet, something that would make a thoughtful person glad they were alive. It is for sunny days or the good kind of rainy day. It is not for tornadoes, floods or funerals. "It's A Girl" is about re-affirming joy and hope as the starting points of a life worth living. It is much easier to make dark, sad art that feels deep. Making happy art that is fulfilling is a huge challenge. The story and theater of [each] song is vital. We use props. Each song has its own very distinct arrangement and live presentation that grows out of the content of the song. Our sound is one or two instruments with two to four singers, no drum kit or electric guitars. Jason plays acoustic guitar, ukulele, banjo, and trumpet. Lindsay and Elizabeth have rich, clear tone and they can blend voices seamlessly; they know how to get inside the emotion and humor in any lyric. The positive and the feminine are two engines driving this CD. Jason and I are men who love life and embrace girl power.

OT What’s your songwriting process like?
MG My songwriting is very intuitive as far as initial melody, structure and story. A lot of my songs write themselves in less then an half an hour. The last song on the CD, "So Aloha" is a perfect example. I signed an e-mail to a friend " you're so a love, so alive,” I looked at it after hitting "send" and the whole song tumbled out. It has an elaborate rhyme scheme that I would never have arrived at by working over time. I do have a huge bag of tricks for editing and making arrangements more interesting once the initial idea forms. Sometimes when an idea is super catchy I wonder if it is new or pulled from memory. Sometimes it is both.

OT Who are your influences?
MG The two bodies of work I try to live up to are the Beatles and Cole Porter. Setting your sights high helps you fail high.

OT You’ve described some of your music as “pop and catchy” yet your songs/albums boast titles such as The Oral History of Anal Sex. This seems like a schism. Is it?
MG Pop music has always been filled with mature images. "I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved" is Beatles in the summer of love. Its A Girl is all joy but also silly/sexy. I think we are completely accessible even though we're a little offbeat. Kids like our goofy energy and adults like well written lyrics.

OT Throughout your career you’ve moved from band to band. Did each fulfill a specific function?
MG I was in Maestro Subgum and the Whole for ten years. A lot of folks loved that band and some were deeply moved. The Whole is every emotion all side by side. There is a tremendous freedom in that approach but it can be overwhelming. After that I tried to focus each album around an emotional or lyrical concept and find the people who could best embody the idea.

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Recently Salon.Huffington/Slate-Gawker.Jezebel ran a piece claiming that the average Valentine’s day celebration costs upwards of $400 dollars. (XoJane was too busy live blogging a pill-popper’s death rattle, out fat-accepting Nomi Lamm and posting dispatches from asexuals who promote egregious footnote abuse to weigh in.)

To me such extravagance feels smarmy and overwhelming although I did just start Netflixing Gossip Girl for the first time and watching Blake Lively flit around the upper east side being hoarse and vaguely Grecian is enough to make Gandhi sneak out to buy a pair of Tori Burch flats. And I’m no Gandhi. (God, I say that all the time!)

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Really though, the point of Valentines Day is not profligacy, the holiday’s purpose is much more exceptional, far more significant: Valentine’s Day’s sacred function is to allow me to buy as much glittery pink heart adorned clothing and jewelry as possible. Also to provide me with a blog topic and here we go.

Sure it’s Valentine’s Day but that doesn’t mean you have to go the expected route, reserving a table at Blackbird and burying your significant other under mounds of Margie’s Candies. Instead I’ve made you a list of personalized alternatives.

Valentine’s Day Roundup (Off the Beaten Path Edition)

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1. If you grew up wanting to star in (insert one) The Red Shoes/Save the Last Dance/Saturday Night Fever: This weekend River North Dance Chicago’s Harris Theater engagement offers two world premieres, "The Good Goodbyes" featuring choreography by RNDC Artistic Director Frank Chaves as well as the first U.S. commission by Italian choreographer and Artistic Director for Spellbound Dance Company, Mauro Astolfi, entitled "Contact-Me."

River North Dance Company member Lauren Kias says this weekend’s premieres are “based around love and passion.” Specifically, “Good Goodbyes” she says “is a warm and cheerful piece celebrating relationships we have with very special people in our lives. Sultry and romantic pieces by Sidra Bell and Frank Chaves, a comedic scat driven solo by Robert Battle and a intense suite of tangos choreographed by Ruben and Sabrina Veliz round out the six piece Valentines day performance.”
Visit rivernorthchicago.com to learn more.

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Composer Miguel Kertsman is nothing if not prolific. With an eclectic oeuvre and a genre-defying take on the music world, Kertsman has turned his talents to everything from composing to producing, creating work across the music spectrum from Orchestral, Operatic, and Chamber Music, to Experimental, and Jazz. This week, O Saci, His children’s show about the power of friendship has its US premiere right here in Chicago. Our Town spoke with Kertsman about his methods and what to expect from the family friendly show.

Our Town How does music come to you?
Miguel Kertsman Music is out there, in here and everywhere in our environment, our lives, our routines, in our world, in the universe and the cosmos. I feel composers are very fortunate to have the urge, desire, and ability to tap into all those sources and channel some of that fantastic energy -- sharing it with others, telling stories, conveying feelings and emotions through sound. Music can come in a dream, in the shower, during a walk, while implementing a totally unrelated task, in the city or in the country. Sometimes there may be a "reason" to write a piece: A person, an event, a commission, a theme. Sometimes the music simply comes to be because it needs to.

OT What’s your method for composing?
MK I write what I hear internally at any given moment and what I feel -- it could be a rather tender, tonal melody today, or a very textural, experimental, chaotic work tomorrow. Sometimes I allow myself to get more cerebral about the writing process; however, most of the time I write what I hear and what I feel -- genres or styles are irrelevant. Concerning methodologies, I still prefer to write by hand, with pencil and paper. Naturally, computer programs can be helpful, especially for mechanical work such as generating engraved, publishing-quality printed scores and parts for the musicians. However, I personally am not a fan of having a computer between the music and me during the creative process, unless the computer's resources would in fact support the aesthetics of the work at hand. I feel we spend far much too much time in front of a computer or other electronic device as it is.

OT Do you write or hear a single line at a time or multiple lines?
MK Either, depending on the piece. When writing orchestral music I write multiple parts on the fly and as I go along since the final product is often already playing internally in full sound -- as if you would be listening to your own internal radio station. It often becomes a matter of writing down and transcribing what you hear. If the orchestral score has, let's say, 32 individual parts (various winds, brass, percussion, strings, choir, special instruments, etc.) I will often write down the most important parts, and make decisions on other lines later -- for example, I may decide to have the third trumpet doubling the first violins at a certain passage, or add another percussion part or effect -- those are often important details, the icing on the cake. When writing pieces with lyrics or Jazz pieces, one can often hear / write a melodic line, and subsequently harmonize it. In such an instance, that represents a more vertical way of composing music.

OT How does improvising impact your compositions or are you more formal about your work?
MK J.S. Bach was an incredible improviser, as were many of the other great Masters -- would that make their music less formal? Improvisation can be a fantastic tool for composition.

OT What would a non-musician be most surprised to find out about a composer’s creative process?
MK I often notice expressions of amazement from people when talking about hearing full or finished symphonic pieces internally that yet do not physically exist. Well, I am just as much in awe when an architect, painter or graphic artist sees a finished work in her /his mind's eye which also does not yet physically exist.

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All photos by Jeff Wasilko

Every musician dreams of crafting the perfect hook to catch our collective attention, drive hot gay dudes to lip-sync and deployed soldiers to upload their dance moves to Youtube. But sometimes the knack for writing of-the-moment music traps an artist in a certain era. Maybe she becomes complacent; possibly it’s public perception that confines her, or perhaps she’s paralyzed by the fear that she’ll never transcend an early hit.
Not so for artists Nerissa and Katryna Nields, a cult folk/rock duo with a relatively small but matchlessly fervent fan base. Set to release their sixteenth album, the sisters have performed together for over twenty years.

Interviewing Nerissa, I was struck by the similarity between her take on the foundation of their longevity and a comment by R.E.M.’s Micheal Stipe in a recent salon.com interview. “I’m so glad we haven’t had a hit yet,” Nerissa told me. “Because that means the hit we have is still inside of us.”

Speaking of R.E.M.’s 1994 album “Monster,” Stipe said “in classic R.E.M. style, we were yet again out of time. We were doing something that was either a little too before or a little too behind what was actually happening.” Though he does not relate this tendency to the band’s staying power, the two seem inexorably linked.

Such is also the case for Nerissa and Katryna Nields. “We’re not willing to follow the rules in order to have a wider audience,” Nerissa said. But by making their own rules these talented siblings have ensured their permanence.

Our Town I’m sure you constantly field this question, but what’s it like to blur the line between family and career?
Nerissa Nields It’s a great question and I’m never tired of answering it. We don’t understand how people can work creatively with anyone other than their sibling. We work really hard at our relationship. We’re only two years apart and we’ve always been exceptionally close, really became best friends in our late teens and always had this dream to make music and have a career together. Eighty percent of our work together is about strengthening our relationship. We’re very intentional. I’m the songwriter and I’m the older sister and when I asked Katryna if she would be in a band with me, she said, “okay but only if you promise that I’m never going to feel like Art Garfunkel.” If one of us is getting too much attention, we say, “it’s not fair. (We talk the way we did when were little), “I need more attention,” and the other one says “okay.”

OT Your shows feel like a visit with old friends. Was it a conscious choice to let your between-song patter become so much a part of your performance?
NN We grew up in the folk world and early in our career saw acts like Cheryl Wheeler, Moxy Früvous, Ani Difranco and Dar Williams, who is one of our best friends, and it was always part of the show. Certainly Cheryl Wheeler; I love her music, I love her songwriting, but I go to her shows just as much to hear what she’s going to say. When we were sort of forming our identity as an act we were watching a lot of David Letterman and Conan O’Brian and we naturally tried to infuse our shows with comedy. Basically, we’re giving back what we like to see.

OT In addition to your music, you’ve written several books, most recently All Together Singing in the Kitchen. How is writing a book different than crafting a song?
NN I’m a person with a short attention span and I love the song for that reason. You can write a song in an afternoon. I also love the challenge of writing a book, but it’s a much bigger deal than writing a song. We wrote All Together in two years and that was from start to finish. It was a lot of rewriting and thinking and discussing. I feel really lucky I get to both write songs and books.

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I’ve said it before. One of my favorite parts of blogging (aside from getting 2000 emails a day from Sugardaddie.com) is meeting and promoting interesting Chicagoans. I love spotting that talented someone, currently flying under the city’s radar and knowing that even if I don’t write about her, it’s only a matter of time before someone does.
Tuesday night, I had the honor of taking part in Fictlicious, Micki LeSueur’s fantastically cohesive reading series. Not only did the event introduce me to The Hideout, some kind of magical Milwaukee-esque bar set down in the sort of bleak area Frank Sobotka’s ghost probably haunts, but it also brought to my attention one Stephanie Tonnemacher.
A convivial folk/pop singer/songwriter, Tonnemacher wooed the crowd with her lovely voice and sharp lyrics. Recently back from Nashville, Tonnemacher spoke with Our Town about her guitar playing style, her dream audience member and the Chicago music scene.

Our Town When did you realize you wanted to be a musician?
Stephanie Tonnemacher I’ve always participated in music related activities: church choir, band, music ensembles, and private guitar lessons. It wasn’t until high school that I realized people actually could do it for a living. I dove in by going to music prep high schools, then majoring in composition and arranging in college. I can’t imagine doing anything else that would be as fulfilling. I’m just lucky enough to have parents that encouraged me to go for it from a young age.

OT Who are your influences?
ST Lyrically, I’d have to say Joni Mitchell and Nashville singer/songwriter Patti Griffin. Musically, I’d say a blend of Sheryl Crow and Paul Simon.

OT Finger style guitar picking is not necessarily the norm, what made you
gravitate toward it?
ST I started out playing classical guitar and finger style was just a natural progression for me when I ventured into pop genres. I want to have an interesting accompaniment for when I sing solo without a band. Finger style is a fun, challenging way to break out of the conventional “chick-singer” guitar playing style that people sometimes try to box me into.

OT Do you more closely identify as a singer or songwriter? If you had to
give one up which would it be?
ST Tricky, tricky! I’ve asked myself this question before, trying to figure out which post-graduation musical career path I wanted to take. I don’t think I could stand going a single day without singing. Songwriting is a much more recent skill that I’ve honed. But it’s also something that I’ve started to do on a daily basis, a great outlet for problem solving and saying obnoxious things that without the artistic license excuse could be considered socially unacceptable. So, I guess I’m not willing to give up either.

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Over the last two decades, Soprano Victoria Holland has performed everywhere from Illinois venue Ravinia to Il Conservatorio di Parma in Italy. Though I have yet to catch one of her performances, I’ve been lucky enough to benefit from Holland’s vocal instruction. Confident, knowledgeable and down to earth, Holland revitalized my singing practice. Now she’s offering a vocal skills for adults class, designed for singers of all experience levels. The group class, a nice precursor to private voice lessons or supplement to choral singing runs for eight weeks starting November tenth.

Our Town spoke with Holland about performance, teaching, and just what’s so great about Opera.

Our Town Was singing always an ambition?
Victoria Holland Yes, an ambition but also an escape, especially during my teenage years.

OT You have a PhD in Voice and Opera Performance. Why pursue a higher degree in voice?
VH Most singers aren't fully developed or fully trained after undergrad studies alone. Plus, it's a lifelong learning process. Technique must be continually managed, your world view augmented, you're always growing and evolving. You'll never know everything so consider yourself a student ad infinum.

OT What would you say to an opera novice to catch their interest?
VH Opera hits people differently. And production quality can vary greatly. If you're new to the genre, go to the best houses, like Chicago Lyric, the MET in NYC, and Houston Grand. And choose the opera wisely, according to your interests. We all love stories. Some like love stories, others are fascinated with history, or intrigue, or mysticism. It can be overwhelming, so read about the work and the composer before seeing a production. Though sometimes it's fun to go in unprepared and allow yourself to be surprised and transported into another world. It can be helpful to see an opera in its original language and to start with your native language. For English speakers, I love Susannah by Carlisle Floyd or Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten.

OT You’re been singing for years, are pre-performance nerves a problem?
VH I get nervous in a new situation and when I perform a piece for the first time but the nerves aren't debilitating. Once as a young singer, I was singing an aria that was too difficult for me and I was so nervous I closed my eyes in the middle of the aria and didn't open them until I'd finished. Not my finest moment. Last month I was rehearsing for my first Brahms Requiem and my heart rate raced just before I sang the first orchestra rehearsal, but once I started to sing it normalized. It's the fear of the unknown. I felt fine for the performance. And I have ways to stay relaxed before going onstage.

OT Any memorable onstage moments?
VH My first professional performance was a Mozart Requiem in Memphis at age twenty. It felt so great to sing that piece with an orchestra. I thought, if I never perform again, I'll die happy.

OT What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a professional singer?
VH As in any career, go in with your eyes open. Learn how to sing clearly and beautifully and in ways that engage and affect your audiences. Enjoy any opportunity to sing and learn from the experience. Stick with it. Most singers with successful careers have been singing for decades.

OT What sort of student should take your class?
VH A student with a passion for singing, who wants to better understand how the human voice works and how to apply the knowledge. A student who wants a broader range, who desires camaraderie with other singers.

OT Why start with group lessons before pursuing private lessons?
VH I love small group lessons because if I teach four private lessons in a row to people who haven't studied with me before, much of what I say and do is repeated. Why not get us all together and share the experience? There is camaraderie and more opportunity for fun. Yeah, students get nervous singing in small groups and letting their voice be heard, but it wanes as we build trust, just as in private lessons. And small group lessons are much more affordable!

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A darling of the Chicago music scene since her debut album’s 2005 release, Martha Berner has gone on to win fans and critical accolades both nationally and abroad. Now ramping up for an aggressive push in support of her sophomore album, Fool’s Fantasy, Berner spoke with Our Town about her new band, her ideal audience member and what makes a performance great.

Our Town Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Martha Berner I didn’t write it on purpose. I was feeling sort of forlorn, a sort of typical teenage longing to know where I belonged, and I began to write a poem. This was out of character for me. I was very shy about my thoughts and never wrote them down. But I had written this poem, and pretty immediately I decided to try and put it to music. I don’t recall it taking that long to put it all together, maybe just a day or two.

OT Have any songs changed the way you write?
MB I don’t know if there’s one particular song or artist. Whether it’s a melody, lyrics, or a production approach, it’s hard to listen to music without constantly making mental notes, conjuring new ideas for songs or sounds. That’s why I listen to a lot of NPR. It’s my only real escape!

OT What’s your writing process like?
MB In the past, I’ve mostly put songs together all at once, so to speak. Find a chord progression I like, then put melody and lyrics together as I move through the song, making decisions about new chord progressions, melodies and lyrics as I go. However, that’s really begun to change for me. I’m now thinking mostly in rhythms and am doing a lot of lyric writing separately. Then I experiment with putting different ideas together and observe how they change each other.

OT How long does it generally take you to write a song?
MB You never know! Some take a day, some take a year. The rest fall anywhere in between.

OT In what ways is Fool’s Fantasy different than your first record?
MB It’s still very rooted in the singer/songwriter genre, but with the Significant Others I was able to bring to life the full band sound I had in mind when writing many of the songs on this album.

OT How did you go about assembling the Significant Others?
MB Part luck, part strategy. Scott Fritz (electric guitar/producer) and I waited tables together in the west loop when he moved here from New York City to develop his own studio and work as a music producer. Things took off for him at the studio and he was able to quit working in the restaurant. But a year or so later I needed a band for a gig I had booked and I dropped him a line. At the time, my ideal, long-term plan was for Scott to play with me live long enough to really get him inside the songs, not just technically, but energetically, emotionally. If that went well, my hope was to have him produce the new album. Lucky for me, Scott had been playing with Will Sprawls (keyboards) since they were teenagers and Will had moved to Chicago from New York City as well. They were up for doing some shows and we’ve been playing together since. Tyson Ellert (drums/percussion) and I were love at first rehearsal. It was a blind date, so to speak. We didn’t know each other, but a mutual friend set us up. It’s always kind of nerve wracking to do that. Like any blind date, if you discover you have little in common and there’s no chemistry, you’re sort of stuck there trying to figure out how to make an exit. But we rehearsed for a few hours and gelled immediately, both musically, and as friends.

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Dear Twelve Year Old Self:
You don’t know me but I know you. See, I am you. The future you. Nice hot pink shorts by the way. They go smashingly with your hot pick socks, white keds, hot pink scrunchie and that hot pink glossy sports bra you wear as a shirt. (Sports bras are much less exciting when you spend all of your time wearing one while shouting at people from a stationary bike in a darkened room. Why would you do that? Good question.) Oh, and don’t worry, I don’t use the word ‘smashingly’ all the time. Just for special breaching the time/space continuum occasions.

You see this occasion is special indeed. I have brought you here to read my interview with one of your very favorite people. Dare I say, your idol. No, not Lily Tomlin. Younger self, I was lucky enough to interview Tiffany. Yes, she’s still got great hair. Not quite as high in the front though. Well, fewer jean jackets, no shopping mall concerts, but she is on tour with your other favorite. No, not Bette Midler. My God, why didn’t anyone know you were queer? Debbie Gibson. No, I don’t still have the Electric Youth perfume poster you climbed into the dumpster behind Walgreen’s to swipe. Yes, she’s still cute as a piano-playing bug, but she goes by Deborah now.

Anyway, Tiffany was lovely and gracious and gabbed about everything from her country-tinged album, “Rose Tattoo,” to whether she regrets posing for Playboy. Crap. No, forget I said that. I don’t care how much you like Gypsy. I don’t care how well things worked out for Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Look, by the time you’re me, you’ll have a lucrative blogging career. Yes, I know what lucrative means. I was using it in its original sense, from the Latin lucrātīvus, meaning gainful. Fine, once you get here, if my/your lifestyle does not meet your standards, you can pose for Playboy. My God, you’re stubborn. No wonder our mom sent you to all those therapists.

Our Town How is the music industry different from an adult perspective?
Tiffany You know more of the pitfalls; you know the industry is a business. It’s a balance to not get jaded by that. As a young artist, you just go out and play music because you love it. When I got off the road at nineteen, I thought, I’ll give it a couple years and just jump back in, but it’s a very fast paced industry and you have to keep up and continue to put product out and I think I’ve learned all that as an adult. Maybe people told me all that when I was younger but you don’t really get it.

OT We’ve watched artists like Britney Spears publicly falter. How did you avoid that period?
T For myself and Debbie Gibson, that was a big no-no, a career breaker, to be out doing scandalous things—at the time that was not acceptable. Not that it’s okay now, but bad behavior is a little more celebrated. Artists have always gotten into trouble, especially as young teens because you’re living in an adult world. Nobody’s telling you no, you’re making lots of money. But we didn’t have reality TV; paparazzi weren’t what they are now. Every second these kids are bombarded, so you’re gonna see some unflattering things. As a public, we gasp when we see that sort of thing yet we’re hooked to the TV.

OT How has social media changed life for an artist?
T It’s a great time to be an independent artist. Everyday I wake up to some new tool available to me to get the word out about my new record or to network within the industry or get in contact with my fans. I’m not always instantly in the know, but I have lots of friends with their fingers on the pulse and I look to them to educate me. Being an artist used to mean making a record, doing a video, doing some touring-- those were the tools of the trade. Now you can go on Twitter, be accessible through so many different avenues. That’s very exciting, but also kind of demanding. You really have to stay on top of things.

OT Was there ever any truth to the supposed rivalry between you and Debbie Gibson?
T We get a kick out of that. I can definitely say for myself, I never had harsh words with her, I didn’t even know her. We would walk red carpets together, take a few pictures and go our separate ways. We never became friends (and definitely weren’t enemies) until the movie “Mega python vs Gatoroid” brought us together and we developed a friendship for the first time. You’d think we would have collaborated through music, but that’s actually really a challenge. We are two completely different people and I think that’s what this tour is about: celebrating the 80’s through each of our perspectives. I’m much more of a rocker and country at heart, so I’m going to be into Stevie Nicks and Bon Jovi and Guns and Roses and Deborah is your pop girl through and through (with some Broadway thrown in) and she does it beautifully. We never understood the rivalry but it’s probably to be expected, it’s good gossip.


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Weird flattery will get you everywhere, or at least a mention in this blog. But maybe only when the temperature is such that I am forced to dress like Sookie Stackhouse in order to leave the house.

Let me clarify.

Melancholy-voiced Matt Campbell, a self-declared troubadour, wrote me another e-mail yesterday, and because he opened by calling my surname the “best of any press person yet,” I decided to write about him. I tolerate my last name, but cumbersome and easily mispronounced, on my worst days, it even makes me feel fat. (These are obviously different from the days on which I dress like Sookie Stackhouse.)

I get stupid-hundred e-mails a day, but Campbell’s comment caught my attention. Having educated myself about his nimble, ruminative music and subsequently interviewed the guy, I’m glad it did.

Now if someone can please turn the weather down, on my honor, I’ll blog about you too.

Our Town What does it mean to be a troubadour?
Matt Campbell Outside of the romantic notion of a wandering bard singing stories of life and love, it does require leading an examined life; attempting to tap into something inherent in our human experience, and reflecting it for others to hear. Growing up, I found great comfort and enjoyment in music. My mom would listen to the classic country station and on Sundays they played the country gospel stuff from the 40's and 50's. She knew all the words. My Dad played the guitar and banjo, and had a great collection of records heavy on 50's rock n' roll, songwriters and country music. The covers of those albums were amazing, those guys were always in suits and hats. When they showed up to play, they were dressed up, like they were paying respect to their music and to the audience. Always gracious.

OT You’ve lived and performed on both coasts. Why Chicago?
MC I came to Chicago for love, first and foremost, prompted by a feeling that if I didn't I would regret it. [Also] I am always drawn in by a challenge. Chicago is the one of the few great American cities. This is a tough town to live in and to make it through is going to take some backbone. But there is a spirit of opportunity for theatre and music here that may not exist anywhere else. It's almost like the ultimate "put-up or shut-up" place. What a great environment to build something from the ground up. I suppose the short answer is, I'm always looking for more, and Chicago was more.

OT What prompted you to form The Chicago Talking Machine Co.?
MC A "production" company, CTMCo. is the entity I created as a platform for anything I do creatively. The name is a throwback to early recording on "talking machines." In one year The CTMCo. has produced two short films, two recording projects, and through shows and residencies has helped to produce opportunities for others. Not bad, so far.

OT You call “Miles Apart” a musical short story.
MC A narrative unfolds throughout all the songs; they are all related. Because recording and distribution have changed so much, the LP idea is in a state of flux. Singles and EP's are really prevalent now. I have always been into concept albums, but instead of using ten songs to get there, I used five. I still wanted to give the listener a complete picture. It's the perfect recording for fans of concept albums who ride the train; it's only about fifteen minutes long.

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Photo by Stephanie Richardson and Jeff Steinmetz

John Stamos may be tweeting backstage passes to Beach Boys fans and Lady Gaga personally Facebooking with followers, but in this moment of increasing celebrity accessibility, folk group Girlyman can honestly say they did it first and maybe with more integrity.

Formed in 2001, the band has always maintained a close relationship with their supporters, arguably grounds for their consistently swelling fan base. However, according to band member Ty Greenstein, it was member Doris Muramatsu’s 2010 leukemia diagnosis, that further solidified that unique connection. Now in addition to down to earth post-gig conversations and personally mailed CDs, the girly people have begun openly blogging about everything from body dysmorphia to musical self-doubt.

While on tour, Greenstein spoke with Our Town about Muramatsu’s positive prognosis, recent addition, JJ Jones and why the band will never change its name.

Our Town Most bands say the secret to maintaining a good working relationship is time apart, but Girlyman socializes on and off the road. Why does it work?
Ty Greenstein We really are best friends, soul mates who share a life path. The bond was personal first. Our lives lined up in this incredible way so we get to be in a band together and take our life lessons into our work. That's really how it happened, not the other way around where a band of random musicians gets together and hopes they have some personal chemistry. In some ways the band is a theater where we can play out all our dynamics and work through whatever comes up, which we're all committed to doing. If things feel good in the relationships, the music also feels solid, and if personal revolutions are happening, I think you can hear it in the music or see it in the shows.

OT Recently you added JJ to the group. Was the addition as seamless as it appeared?
TG It really was. I forget she's a newcomer; we all laugh at the same jokes, obsess over good food, and have long conversations about the meaning of life. Her vision for the band is very much in line with ours; we want to keep opening people up in all kinds of ways with music, and basically just have fun and keep growing. But she also has a freshness to her approach and a perspective that having done this for almost ten years, we sometimes lack. Sometimes we forget how lucky we are to have gotten this far.

OT You famously have a very open relationship with your fans. Any regrets?
TG After Doris was diagnosed in November, that kind of blew the whole thing open. We were all personally shaken and humbled. I was facing the mortality of my best friend of thirty years, plus the specter of an end to the band and my career. I didn't care anymore about arbitrary divisions between "performer" and "fan," and frankly, the fans helped get us through. They wrote to us, prayed and visualized for us, sent packages and donations and inundated Doris with love. Everyone should have that kind of support network when the sh*t hits the fan. We know how lucky we are, and how special our fans are.

OT How is Doris?
TG She's doing really great, responding very well to the drug she's on. She's active and for the most part, leads a normal life. This is largely thanks to the incredible advances in CML treatment over the past ten years. The drug she's on was only approved as a first-line treatment a month before her diagnosis, talk about being born at the right time. These targeted therapies have turned CML from a terminal disease where people had a few years at most, to a chronic illness that just needs to be managed. At her three-month checkup, Doris went from 100% leukemic cells at diagnosis down to 4%.

OT What was the personal and professional impact on the band?
TG In six words or less, it has put everything into perspective. Doris started keeping a blog about her health on CaringBridge, and then we basically turned our whole website into a blog where we post our thoughts about life in general, in addition to pictures and videos of the band in action and behind the scenes. I think the whole "fame" thing has been transformed in a great way with social networking and real time interaction via the internet. Everyone is just a person now, and we're sharing our lives.

OT What can fans do to help?
TG Please keep coming to the shows. And if you want to make a donation to Doris or to the band, you can do so at http://girlyman.com/donate/

OT Careers in the arts can be rife with disappointment. Any derailing early experiences you could share?
TG Plenty. Before Girlyman, when it was just me and Doris as the Garden Verge, we once played a gig where so few people came that not only didn't we make anything but we had to pay the sound guy his fifty bucks out of our own pockets. Then when Girlyman formed, there were plenty of places that wouldn't book us, even for free. Those early days can be pretty rough. I've blocked out a lot of it. We once played a whole show to one person. That was pretty special.


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