Laura Nyro

You can call music amazing all you like; you can overuse that adjective in abundance all over the comments sections of social media platforms, but to me, it isn’t amazing unless it reaches a part of your soul that identifies with you in a way that is so resonantly truthful to oneself, that it brings tears to your eyes, sends shivers up your spine, and there isn’t really a tangible way in which your love of it can be expressed.

Which is exactly what I experienced about a month ago when I discovered Laura Nyro via the Lefsetz letter. When I Followed through Bob’s description song by song, I was very quickly sold, and off I went, searching for her music.


The first track I heard was ‘Wedding Bell Blues’ then ‘Stoney End’. Instantly recognisable hits from The Fifth Dimension and Barbara Streisand but Nyro wrote them!

As I ventured Nyro’s catalogue throughout a night of insomnia, I started to slowly unravel her genius: her angelic voice, that demanded your attention from everything between a soft whisper or a bellowing cry, her virtuosic piano playing that could interweave the simplicity of a solid backbeat of a catchy rock n’ roll pop tune with the dreamy complexity and space of jazz, not to mention the stunning arrangements of tracks such as ‘Lu’, ‘Poverty Train’, ‘Gibsom Street’ or my personal favourite ‘Captain for Dark Mornings’…some of those tempo changes too!!!

But the key thing about Laura Nyro is her soulfulness, sensitivity and sincerity. One of those few artists that can elevate certain feelings of love, loss and loneliness to above and beyond. Like those few artists, she died way too young, and it breaks my heart even more so when I listen to her.

As a Friday Night listening to Nyro transcended into a Saturday morning, and after a train ride and a strong coffee, I popped into the record store and bought 5 albums!

I’ve been telling everyone about her ever since, and only 1 person out of everyone knew who she was, having fallen under the radar whilst other artist’s renditions of her songs turned them into hits.

You’ve got to hear Laura herself though…she’s too good not to be heard by so few.

‘There is no way to make a living in it’

‘There is no way to make a living in it’ When I have told older folks in the past that I want to be a musician, make records, perform music and in basic human principle, do what I love doing, I was often thrown back the response ‘but there is no way to make a living in it.’ Now, I have recently seen others inflict that idea on younger people and want to take my own personal space here just to politely give a few examples of musicians who are making a living, and more so than that, being fulfilled in themselves as well as fulfilling others.

Guthrie Govan

Guthrie Govan – regarded as one of the best guitarists in the world, dropped out of a literature degree at Oxford and worked in Mcdonald’s for several years before becoming the venerable musician he is today.

hugh-laurie

‘Actor, musician, writer. Because the world needs more of those.’ Hugh Laurie’s twitter bio.

imogen-heap-gloves

Imogen Heap – Has had her ups and downs in her music career but her persistence and sense of innovation makes her one of electronic music’s most loved artists

laura2

Old head on young shoulders – Laura Marling’s ambition is untempered.

James-Rhodes

And last but certainly not least – james Rhode’s who constantly works towards supporting music education and raising awareness of it’s importance

So why do people say this? 

Because making a living from an artistic vocation isn’t easy: in fact, according to Renee Magritte, it’s a mystery, I’ve read into art a lot trying to find logic in it where there is more often than not, no logic to be found. There is an imminent amount of risk involved, along with uncertainty of any stability or sustainability. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no way to make a living from it. This statement is usually made incontrovertibly out of personal doubts and fear as opposed to reasoning. The way to make a living from music or art requires talent, a hell of a lot persistence, hard work, luck, good attitude, intelligence, uncompromising arrogance and sacrifices to an extent…it is bleedin’ hard and it is certainly not for just anyone; but Mr Laurie is right, it is artists, actors, musicians producers are the people that gives the world it’s colour and reminds us of the beauty that this world is capable of offering to us.

So what should be said instead?

Instead of saying ‘there is no way to make a living’ out of music to aspiring young people, devaluing their love of what they do and forcing them to do another subject or vocation that would potentially offer stability in the coldest comforts and maybe misery and regret, approach  the subject with a perception that isn’t binary. Say that it is possible, but it’s a way of life that you will do because you HAVE to do it as opposed to just wanting to do it. It is about being realistic whilst also being encouraging and supportive.

Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

This year thus far has been an impeccable one for music thus far and yesterday is what I could call one of the most highly anticipated Monday’s of my life as I waited for the post man to deliver the deluxe edition of Steven Wilson’s new album Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Anyone who has heard of my work with Eden Shadow or has met me in person will be aware that I take a lot of influence from this artist. I grew up with Porcupine Tree and besides Dream Theater, Tool and Opeth; Wilson has been one of very few artists to carry the torch through the last two decades for a genre of music that was constantly pushing boundaries (deemed by many as prog).

Besides being an unusual artist emerging through the 90’s, it has become very clear to me why Wilson has now gained the deserved amount of success he has had with Porcupine Tree and now his solo career. Firstly, the guy is relentless and completely prolific in writing music every single day, continuously making records, he has failed at achieving what he’s wanted at times but he’s kept going. It took him 15 years before he gained any prevalent recognition for what he was doing when PT released In Absentia, and every time he has faced success, he is adamant in ensuring that he does not repeat himself. Secondly, his attention to detail at times is astounding, you take many of his records, and the way in which they’re presented both sonically and in it’s packaging is remarkable, leading to a unique and immersive experience. Finally and what i would argue to be most important point is the context of his music. I have heard so much music from this scene, which is completely contrived and says so little that I would say even though most of my time is dedicated to writing progressive rock music, I avoid listening to most of it! The older I get, the more I realise what makes music work for me is how much I see of myself in it, which is when people ask me what my favourite records, I’ll say something like Vespertine by Bjork because it is a complete reflection of my introverted self. Wilson has more and more through the years delivered albums where he has had something to say. Music is a language after all. He is also one of very few artists who, low and behold, can actually be articulate in an interview, listen to to a question and say something insightful.

In terms of having something to say, and a mirror to hold up, after listening to Hand. Cannot. Erase. for the first time, I regard this album as one of the most relevant to me he has yet written. The album concept in brief is this,

“The story of Hand.Cannot.Erase. is a about a girl who grows up, moves to the city and begins to erase herself”

This is loosely based on the disappearance of Joyce Carol Vincent, who was a young woman, had a family, had friends but erased herself from everyone around her, died in her apartment and wasn’t discovered for three years. That is an incredibly macabre subject matter, but it holds a lot of pathos about modern day life in the city, and I have experienced this myself! I moved from the Welsh countryside to my student town, just outside London, and there were times when I was in London on my own and I felt completely isolated from the millions of people around me.

It’s not just the idea of being able to isolate yourself in a metropolis that is explored in this album, it’s also the impact that social media has had on my generation in particular and the fact there are people who can loose themselves in social media and video games where they do not walk outside their front doors for days on end. I am all to aware of the benefits of social media, but I share some ambivalence about it. More so than anything else, I use social media to share ideas, to share my thoughts, my music as well as other people’s idea and works but all too often, people who are using social media for those purposes are contending with a mass volume of trivial noise of people portraying their lives in a way that is faux. The lyrics from ‘Home Invasion’ seriously hit home.

Download sex and download God.
Download the funds to meet the cost.
Download a dream home and a wife.
Download the ocean and the sky.

Another day of life has passed me by.
But I have lost all faith in what’s outside.
They only are the stars across the sky
And the wreckage of the night.

Download love and download war.
Download the shit you didn’t want.
Download the things that make you MAD.
Download the life you wish you had.

I’ll save describing the music or concepts any further, but in my humble opinion, this album is again an incredible achievement and I look forward to seeing it live. For more context, here’s a great interview.

Creative Inconveniences

The more I lead this utterly crazy life of creating music, the more I realise that for the most part, your best ideas will come at completely inconvenient times and that you have just got to deal with it.

I cycle across the west coast of Wales, between Cardigan and Abaraeron. A musical phrase enters my head, syncopated and an odd time feel, my head continuously runs through the idea as my legs keep pedalling. I have another 400 miles and five days of cycling before I can lay my hands onto a guitar to process that idea. Besides the delirium of burning 9000 calories a day and cycling almost the entire perimeter of Wales, this idea ceases to leave my head.

I queue up for a coffee in my student town, an opening of a song comes in my head, and I frantically write it into the notes of my phone before I order a cappuccino, to which the caffeine adds to more frantic stream of ideas that are trying to pass through somewhere other than my neurological system.

A three-hour train journey, and yet another musical phrase sets itself in my brain and is wishing to be unleashed. Fortunately, I was savvy enough to take manuscript with me on my venture but alas, a baby persistently cries within the carriage and I must persist through the piercing sound frequencies that imperatively grasps the attention from a child’s parents and forge my own frequencies that are trying to express something entirely different.

And finally I have the time to sit down and pursue these ideas in my studio space when all of a sudden a light bulb sparks itself in my head and says ‘Hello there! I am a bright new idea…I’m all sparkly and stuff’ and I retort by saying ‘Go away, I’m busy, could you have just waited a week or two?’ (I could do with a cup of tea; shall I opt for the smokiness of Lapsang Souchong or the lemon zestiness of Earl grey??? Oh, that reminds me, I haven’t eaten for nearly 24 hours as I have been too busy mixing!)

As I venture through this creative wonderland, excited yet perturbed, happy yet miserable (***The Tortured artist may well be NOT a myth, we are indeed pitiful souls…read all about it http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-zara/tortured-artists_b_1605509.html). I shall eventually create such a bizarre catalogue of music that most ordinary people will deem it the product of a crazed loony toon, and suitably conclude that it will fit in none other vicinity than Willy Wonka’s Chocalate Factory, only kept alive by loyal audience members that somehow see them isolated and estranged selves within this bohemian mirror.

Maybe one day, it will all subside and the endless lament of writer’s block shall instead vex me, and I shall disappear for five years (maybe grow a vineyard, or venture into carpentry, or buy a yacht). Then one day, inspiration will once strike me again, and I shall scheme a remarkable return to which I will alienate everyone by releasing my equivalent of Radiohead’s Tree Fingers.

Would I have it any other way though?

Nope.

Why singing and improvising go hand in hand.

I have spent the last 8 months embarking on a jazz album. I’ll be the first to admit, I am by no means a straight out jazzer, I walked out of a college open day for a four year jazz course concluding that there was simply too much rock and roll in me. (Which is probably why I ended up in the art rock world!)

The elusive element about jazz is that it is a language of it’s own within the musical world, something where freedom and chaos reigns hand in hand with knowledge and sophistication. The one thing I’ve discovered over the course of playing solos over jazz standards or anything for that matter is how inherently powerful singing is and how it can improve your improvisation.

Especially from a guitarist’s point of view; the guitar is a wonderfully convenient instrument when it comes to shape and scales but the negative factor of that is that the mechanical process of playing the instrument can leave the player in a state disregard for the other essential two points of the triangle, the theoretical and the musical. I’ve lost count of how many times I have seen players who’s improvisation has been dictated by their fingers…myself included!

The beautiful thing about singing is that it comes straight from your heart and mind, without any preconceptions: it is immediate. I’ve linked a track that I have played on below and I think out of the entire selection of jazz recordings it is my strongest because I sang every phrase that I played before playing it. It takes a lot of practice but it’s worth it. So if any guitarists out there feel like they are caught stuck in making a fine solo, besides doing the practice, try singing, you may well surprise yourself!

Your Turn Challenge day 3 – The Spotify vs. Musical Artist conundrum

Day 3 – Write about something that you think should be improved

What truly defines the value of something? What really are the principle things that should be considered when anyone is paid a certain amount for what they do or a product is sold for a certain amount for what it is?

That is a pretty complicated question isn’t it? Things like that are incredibly nuanced but for most industries, it is a manageable question, from the price of coffee or designer clothing to the housing market and financial sector (without disregarding the obligatory bureaucracy)

Music on the other hand has in recent years taken that whole concept to another level and I have lost count about the amount of times that I have debated the issue or re-evaluated where I stand on the whole subject. Especially when the digital technology industry is moving so fast.

Over the last year, I have invested a lot of time into experimenting and mulling over ways in which I release and format my music. I use three main ways to distribute my music. My label undertakes one way and I deal with other two (I am very lucky to have a situation where everything is transparent and I have the option of distributing myself). The first way is through Bandcamp where I engage directly with my audience and the second is through a licensing company called Tunecore, which release my music to Itunes, Spotify and any other company willing to spare me a penny when my music gets played.

I was very reluctant to put up my music on Spotify and said streaming companies initially but eventually decided it was the best option to promote and advertise my first full-length release. I have countless spreadsheets of analytical data but if there were one thing I wish I could retrieve, it would be who out of the people listened to my music on Spotify, decided to buy a physical copy of my album. I would feel that then, I actually have some determination of how effective streaming companies are as a platform for discovery.

This is where the problem lies; streaming is a very grey area in terms of how music artists are paid. Taylor Swift and Thom Yorke are two figureheads to have spoken out about it and preceded to strip their catalogue from the service. Without, dwelling too far into the subject though, there is one fundamental improvement that needs to be made from both the streaming company and the artist: and that is attitude.

The attitude of streaming companies

It has been publicly stated that an artist is paid $0.007 per stream of a song. Over one year, I earned just under $20 for 3000 streams. What do you think of that payment? I’ll be frank, it comes across as approved piracy to me.

Spotify recently hit back at the criticism of Thom Yorke and Taylor Swift by stating that it has collectively paid out 500 million to artists in the last year. However, their argument disregards one major thing, and that is the fact that major labels tie in with this with deals that are not necessarily relative to the $0.007 per stream and a lot of the payouts would be to past catalogues, suggesting that there is a massive gap between those who get paid sufficiently and independent artists who don’t. I did do some research on Spotify’s explanation on how it pays artists, and only ended up feeling a bit more perplexed about the whole thing.

http://www.spotifyartists.com/spotify-explained/

Whilst I am still confused enough to be unable hold an opinion that streaming companies are The Devil, I do question its sense of middle ground, and that’s where attitude needs to improve. Streaming companies need to make paying artists fairly and sufficiently a priority as they continue to grow.

In full perspective, it is still early days for streaming, and whether artists like it or not, it is rapidly on the rise, so we have to accept the reality.

The attitude of artists

Having said that about Spotify, I think a lot of the resentment and bitterness from some artists is misplaced and the attitude needs from us can be improved to some extent. Ultimately, as the artist, you have control over how you choose to format your music, you also have control over how you engage with your audience and communicate with them and add a sense of value to the art you display. Just because you release music, does not necessarily mean you have to stream it. The most important thing for any musician to remember when they are out there in the world trying to make music for a living is that music owes you nothing. One of the best artists in recent years to have embraced the new age of music is Imogen Heap. This wonderful woman has enlightened me with a big streak of positivity and I recommend any aspiring musician drowning in cynicism to read her story for a change in perspective.

There can be a simpler answer to the question initially asked.

What truly defines the value of something? You do.