Interview for Janet Feder
The first time that I listen to your music was with the first cd I NEVER META GUITAR, the first volume, with your track Heater, how do you decide to play on that record?
I was invited by Elliott Sharp, who was the curator for that album. We’d performed together a few times in the past. I think he did great work with I NEVER META GUITAR and I feel honored to have been included. Heater was the first piece I composed on a baritone classical guitar and even though it came out in 2012 on my album Songs With Words (with toy piano & voice) the solo recording I made for the compilation was specifically for that.
The second one was with the double cd $100 Guitar, amazing record, you played “Thewind that brought the fire”, you wrote on the cd’s leaflet “conjuring birds, flames and the shimmering heat from what had passed through weeks earlier”, are so always so expired of what is around you?
Right, what a great album! I’m so glad I got to contribute to it, and it was also for a good cause (proceeds went to CARE, a global charity in the fight against poverty and displacement).
And yes, I’m always so inspired by my surroundings! I also imagine compositions around visual art, places I’ve been and have never been (that I’ve read or heard about), things I’ve seen in films, conversations I’ve had with friends. I think what really happens is that my brain gets into a certain space when I’ve been altered by something I’ve seen or experienced and that feeling makes me happy (for lack of a better word – maybe “stimulated” is better) in a way that induces the desire to make something of it. I really love that state of being. It’s so turned on.
And now this last THISCLOSE, how did start the ideas for this new record?
I had some pieces ready to record, though not a full album. My friend and producer Joe Shepard urged me to begin with what I had because he knows how much the studio inspires me, and engineer Mike Yach was also available at that time so the three of us plunged right in and started, not totally sure how it would end up. We had a remarkable experience making Songs With Words (released in 2012) and I knew we were all wondering how it would be to work together again. This time, because we knew each other so much better, we were able to explore much more deeply the sounds and music that make all three of us happy. Working with Mike and Joe is one of the most incredible and gratifying musical and personal experiences of my life. I am beyond grateful for all the ways they listen to and understand my music, and for everything they do that makes me better than I am.
The title T H I S C L O S E refers to several topics at once. It speaks to how much more intimate my music has become in recent years, yet there is space between each thought and letter of this new, one-word ….which allows for something even more beautiful to emerge because of the space it also contains. It refers to changes in my life that have been positive, difficult and beautiful since Songs With Words. And the title also describes the brilliant performances of my friends who played with me on T H I S C L O S E. They came into the studio and were willing to completely surrender themselves to the music, and they played beyond anything I had imagined.
When I listened to your THISCLOSE I was impressed by 3 things: first your voice, second your… poetic use of noise and third by your arpeggios, it seems to me you mixed Joni Mitchell, Sonic Youth and ..Mauro Giuliani into something new and different….
Wow. Andrea. Very flattering to be in the same sentence with such brilliant and unique musicians. And also: you’re right to hear them in my work. I’m so fortunate to be influenced by many artists, those who are legends and so many more who are less well-known. It’s really one of the most beautiful advantages of being alive, turned on, and listening through more than a few decades of life.
My musical background began with folk music as a child at my dad’s knee as he played songs he learned in the Navy, and under the piano as my mother played classical repertoire. (She’d been an accomplished classical pianist as a teenager and could still play, though only with music in front of her.) It continued through my teen years loving rock n’ roll…eventually finding my way to classical guitar and a few solid years of playing mostly J.S. Bach. Then came the explosion of hearing prog rock, where my passion and appreciation of both rock and classical music came together. I’d loved Yes and many other bands widely considered “Prog” since my teen years however it was the band Thinking Plague that caused this sensation in my brain. I learned from these forms, styles, and techniques and they all influenced me and gave me the broad sonic palette I’m so fortunate to have today.
You know, singing arrived very late in my musical career, though I sang as a kid – I just wasn’t very good at it and I was painfully shy to perform with my voice. Once I discovered I could play a musical language just through my hands, I felt electrified. I thank Leo Kottke for this, and a boyfriend of my sister’s who turned me on to his music when I was probably 13 or 14. It was really discovering the music of J.S. Bach on the guitar that turned my musical world on its ear. I spent many years as an only moderately good classical guitarist which meant that I gained tremendously as a musician while realizing that, especially in classical guitar, “moderately good” isn’t close to good enough – and is nowhere near “excellent”, which is what a significant classical guitarist must be. As I moved away from classical guitar I became inspired by a completely new landscape of artists such as Egberto Gismonti, Juan Garcia Esquivel, Juana Molina, and Mike Johnson (Thinking Plague, Hamster Theatre).
I want to again credit the wonderfully creative trio I enjoy with Joe and Mike in the studio for the “poetic use of noise” (the most beautiful description I’ve ever read, thank you!) We each crave making the sounds we want to hear. We all respect each other’s ideas, and will try anything – because we know that if it doesn’t work we’ll all know and agree that it doesn’t work. Also, we add to each other’s ideas in ways that often make each of us better than we are on our own.
We recorded both T H I S C L O S E and Songs With Words at Immersive Studios, which Joe built. Neither album utilizes digital effects of any kind – we made all the sounds by hand and also sometimes used wobbly old analogue gear that was in the studio looking old and pretty. There were a lot of wonderful guitars there, too, and two beautiful pianos, and we had the ability to dedicate some very long days and nights to work undisturbed and on fire with inspiration.
Talking about your prepared guitars, what instruments do you play or have you played?
My very first instrument was a ukulele my parents gave me for my 5th birthday. It came with a songbook and chord diagrams, which I taught myself to play. This seems unusual for a five year-old however looking back from here I suppose I’ve been that weird five year-old all my life.
Once I started exploring extended techniques – which I didn’t know at the time was “a thing” – I was using nylon stringed guitars. Mostly I played a 1959 Martin 00-18C. I then entered into a complicated world of needing to discover how do I actually perform this stuff? How to amplify sounds – especially on nylon stringed guitars – that are tonal spectrums more than pitches, simultaneous high+low frequencies that want to feed back into a microphone, that assault an audience if the live sound engineer isn’t prepared for what I do (which, to this day, still happens now and then…!) I have a true ally in my friend and engineer Colin Bricker who recorded and engineered most of Speak Puppet (ReR 2001) and all of Ironic Universe (AdHoc Records 2004). Colin diligently helped me work out how to perform my music and how to better manage amplified sound. In about 2001 he introduced me to my first Danelectro baritone electric guitar (it was later stolen in 2005.) When Miroslav Tadic played for me a piece he’d recorded on a baritone classical guitar in about 2003 made for him by Milan Sablijc my heart exploded. That was the sound I had craved to hear in my hands all my life.
Additionally, the objects I use sound and react very differently on steel and nylon strings. I’m fortunate to have a few guitars that really do what I want them to do!
My main guitars are:
– custom baritone classical by Milan Sabljic
– Jerry Jones Neptune baritone electric
– amplified “Renaissance” nylon-string baritone by Rick Turner (I use this one the most for touring because it’s very lightweight and versatile.)
On T H I S C L O S E I play an old, very common banjo that Colin loaned to me. Additionally I play the strings inside the piano. And I use a lot of common objects as musical instruments…such as kitchen, household and automotive tools, stones, etc.
I play classical, fretless and electric guitar, just for fun, I had a classical training and I read the same about you, how much have you been influenced by your classical studies? How have you stiedied and with whom?
I have been enormously influenced from my classical studies and especially by two brilliant teachers. The first was Frank Costa, with whom I studied in Portland, Oregon. Frank introduced me to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, to Heitor Villa-Lobos, Francisco Tarrega and Manuel Ponce. Frank taught me my first lessons in how to be a musician. As few years later I met and studied with Phillip de Fremery while I attended the University of Massachusetts. Phil taught me how to really get inside the music, how to study it and really know it, and he tried to teach me to take more time both with learning a composition and also performing it, as well as how to create sonic space intentionally. I wasn’t able to put much of what he taught me to use until years later when I became better able to understand what he was telling and showing me. I owe them both tremendous debts of gratitude.
What does improvisation mean for your music research? Do you think it’s possible to talk about improvisation for classical music or we have to turn to other repertories like jazz, contemporary music, etc.?
I’m more inclined to alter a recipe, to play a musical score as I perceive it through the lens of my own life experience. Ultimately, for me, this initiates the difference between playing music and making music.
Once my thinking shifted and I begin to intentionally make music, improvisation became possible in an entirely different way. I’m fascinated by the notion that to improvise is to Listen, even more than to Play. To continually make choices as the ultimate act of freedom – itself a concept that is often spoken about and yet is rarely deeply considered, explored, practiced. My students are often a little bit terrified when confronted with a graphic score, or an assignment with very open parameters, as if this is “too much freedom”. Improvisation is the invitation to explore true freedom, to think, and act, or not, from that understanding. Most importantly – and I learned this from playing with Fred Frith: improvising at its best is what happens when I commit to making whoever I’m playing with sound their absolute best. I believe that this way of thinking transcends all genres of music making.
What’s the role of the “Error” in your musical vision? For “error” I mean an incorrect procedure, an irregularity in the normal operation of a mechanism, a discontinuity on an otherwise uniform surface that can lead to new developments and unexpected surprises…
Most everything I’ve done that’s good came first from error, from trying something and failing and trying again. From having an idea that didn’t work, yet caused me to try something else that far surpassed what I’d first attempted. Most importantly, it’s the place where my prepared strings and analogue sounds come together with the unaltered strings of the guitar that delights and inspires me the most. In this way my sonic palette is expanded, and all I have to do is have the clear mind to recognize something worth pursuing and the heart to follow where it leads.
Let’s talk about marketing. How much do you think it’s important for a modern musician? I mean: how much is crucial to be good promoters of themselves and their works in music today?
I am not an especially enthusiastic self-promoter. Yet the more I learned along the way about every aspect of my business, the better able I became to hand off certain jobs to someone else – because I’ve learned through experience how difficult each aspect of promotion is and what is involved in becoming successful. Now “success” means so much more than simply being a clever musician, or a wealthy one. At least this is true for me.
Additionally there’s the Internet, which is the single greatest promoter – and sometimes, destroyer – imaginable. For example, I think Bandcamp is genius. And streaming services – while obviously popular, and at their best serve to promote musicians who a listener might not have found otherwise, also starve the hands that feed them. It’s here where the Internet provides the perfect promotional irony: for a musician at my “level” there is probably more value to reaching people who would otherwise not know I exist. So, I allow my music to be streamed and I choose not to listen to streaming services. I buy albums I want to hear. And I stay focused on what music I’ll make next.
Yet we still need others to play specific roles in our careers. We desperately need music reviewers, and these people need to be more than someone with a laptop and an opinion – they need to really understand a broad musical landscape. With the release of T H I S C L O S E I’ve had tremendously articulate reviewers write about the album, and I am most grateful to them. (They are too many to name however their reviews are collected here: http://rjprmusic.com/janet-feder-press-page)
We also need publicists and promoters. I’m so fortunate to work with an exceptional publicist (Rhiannon Jenkins, RJPR Music) who, because of her strong reputation, was able to convince reviewers across a very broad spectrum to listen to my music and write reviews. This put me in front of a lot of listeners who’d never otherwise hear me. And then there are the distributors who send physical product far and wide, and keep track of it all. These are all jobs I’ve done for myself with earlier recordings, and because of this I can better appreciate the efforts of others – and I can have a more realistic expectation of what it is that they provide.
And then there is the whole realm of arranging opportunities to play. This is the most difficult aspect for me because I don’t seem to generate enough income to interest a booking agent – and festivals, concert series, and most venues really don’t want to deal directly with the artist. It’s a constant struggle, and something of a miracle that I get to perform as much as I do and as far and wide as I do. I’d welcome and pay generously someone who would do this work for me.
First and last in this discussion are the people who love the music. “Fan” is not my favorite word, it implies that the artist is somehow better than or above the listener and completely overlooks the fact that pretty much all of my fans are themselves artists, creators, and very very bright people. It’s the people who come to shows and/or buy albums, or people who hear music somewhere and then write to the artist….these people are essential to a performing artist’s career, to my career. And I have to promote to them (Facebook, Twitter) so that they know when they can see and hear me play live, I can tell them how much they’re appreciated, and how they can get in touch if they want.
In this regard I want to add that a majority of the music that excites me comes from the people closest to me – from the records my brother shared with me when I was a kid to all of the albums I listened to with friends as I grew up. This remains one of the most important parts of my friendships to this day: listening to music together. I’m sorry that younger generations might not get to experience this so much, now that everyone walks around with their own private music libraries – usually comprised of single “hits” – in their pockets, in their ears, listening alone, and not knowing the bliss of sharing that full album listening experience with someone else.
Please tell us five essential records, to have always with you .. the classic five discs for the desert island …
Oh, no. Not this question, please! Can’t I just send you photos of my newly adopted kittens or something? Can I invite you to my house, I’ll make a delicious dinner for you and all of your friends? This question is impossible.
What are your five favorite scores?
I love playing graphic scores presented by my mates in our quartet Sone. (Sone is Jane Rigler: flutes + electronics, Mark Harris: saxophones, Evan Mazunik: piano + accordion.) The Gm Fugue (BWV 1000) by J. S Bach (transcribed to Am for guitar). Villa-Lobos’ Preludes and Etudes. Fred Frith’s recorded score for the Andy Goldsworthy documentary “Rivers & Tides”. The score to “Sling Blade” by Daniel Lanois, and Ry Cooder’s score to the film “Paris, Texas”…..May I have some more, please? The list is long because I really love to read music, it’s like reading a poem or a really good story out loud to someone. And there are so many beautiful film scores….and so many beautiful music scores to read and play. I’ve been lost for hours with friends playing from The Beatles songbooks, in bound volumes of John Cage’s vast graphic, poetic creations. I love the endlessness of knowing that I’ll always find something new ahead of whatever I’m looking at now.
With who would you like to play? What kind of music do you listen to usually?
I’d love to play with the Washington, D.C. band Beauty Pill. Fred Frith again, now that I have more experience putting into practice what I learned from him. Juana Molina. London based multi-mediaists The Light Surgeons. Bowed piano composer Stephen Scott. Cycling 74’s Darwin Grosse. And Trent Reznor.
I’m currently listening to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” on repeat. Depending on what I’m doing I listen to Beauty Pill, Nine Inch Nails, Queens Of The Stone Age, Arvo Part, Jimi Hendrix, Paolo Angeli…. I’m also enjoying Wayne Horvitz’ recent release Some Places Are Forever Afternoon. I need a month of nothing but listening to hear everything that’s waiting for me just in my house. And I carry with me a list of everything my friends recommend, so I can listen at my local independent record store, which is world-class (Twist & Shout, Denver).
Your next projects?
I’m very honored to be making a composition/recording for a project started by Chilean artist Gonzalo Fuentes, who has invited 42 musicians (mostly though not exclusively guitarists) to create music to a chosen visual graphic submitted by 21 artists (two musicians to each graphic) all to be compiled on an album titled “Frets of Yore”.
One last question.. have you ever tried to play a fretless guitar?
A few years ago I was invited by guitarist/composer James Sidlo in San Antonio, Texas to contribute to an album by his band Honey Barbara – which I was very happy to do. (The album is called Wave Grass.) By way of thanks James sent me a beautiful fretless electric guitar! I’ve not been very successful performing with it however it’s come into play on several occasions in the recording studio. I’m so grateful to James for giving me this beautiful instrument, which sounds like no other. I’d taken baby steps with this guitar when I heard David Fiuczynski play his fretless guitar (a double-neck, one of them fretless) with Rudresh Mahanthappa a few years ago. He’s an astounding player and he gave me a lot to think about. I’d welcome the chance to devote more time to it.