Authors Posts by Dylan Metrano

Dylan Metrano

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Margo Price performs at The Music Hall Loft in Portsmouth, NH, on July 8.
Margo Price performs at The Music Hall Loft on July 8. courtesy photo

Nashville’s Margo Price is one of those singers who grabs you immediately upon first listen. While her voice harkens back to country legends like Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn, her bare, confessional lyrics place her at the forefront of today’s most poignant songwriters. After several years with the band Buffalo Clover, Price released her first solo album, “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” this spring. At only 33, she’s already a veteran of the road, and has had life-rattling experiences that inform songs such as “Hurtin’ (on the Bottle)” and “Hands of Time.”

Price’s music transcends the boundaries of country, and her themes are universal. She is a truly honest and important new voice in music. She brings her band to The Music Hall Loft in Portsmouth on Friday, July 8.

Your music is unabashedly country, but I hear lots of soul, rhythm & blues, and classic pop in your songs as well. What is country music to you, and how do you feel like you fit in the music world in general?
Give me a second… I’m gonna tell my husband to turn down the Paul Simon… Give me just one second… Country music to me is, the cliche is three chords and the truth. I think there’s a lot of different elements to what we’re doing. I love the really traditional sound, but you can’t just regurgitate something that’s already been done. I like to pull from these other kinds of music that I like as well, like soul as well as blues. Blues and country music kind of go hand in hand, at least in my opinion. They tend to influence each other. I’m happy that I’m accepted in other genres, the places that people might not normally have a country musician come sing. It’s a good thing I fit in there, because I don’t always fit in the country world that is deemed the country world today.

Do you find yourself singing other kinds of music when you’re not performing for your audiences?
The live show has a lot of different instruments. The live show is a lot different than the album. You know, I sit around and mostly sing country and folk songs. I like, obviously, singing the blues. Actually, the other day I went in with a friend and recorded a gospel soul song. I like to do all sorts of things. I was brought up singing classical music. My mom put in me voice lessons, and I had a teacher who taught mezzo-soprano Italian classical kind of stuff. So, it takes all kinds of stuff

I first heard you on “Saturday Night Live” and was immediately taken by your music. What was the experience of playing the show like?
Yeah, it was definitely the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I grew up watching that show, and I always actually wanted to act on it. I would re-enact a lot of the skits. I was like watching it with Will Farrell and Molly Shannon and that cast. It was great. You go there, and you’re there all week, and you get your dressing room, and you kind of settle in, and you get really comfortable on the stage. The second I walked out there, I felt at home. I didn’t really have nerves, and I think that everybody was expecting me to have nerves and be nervous, and I was almost making everyone else have anxiety because I was calm. It was good. A very surreal experience. I got home and it took a few weeks for it to sink in. It kind of felt like a dream.

You pawned your wedding ring and sold your car for the money to record your album at Sun Studios in Memphis. Why Sun, and why was it so important to go “all in” for this recording? Did the recording of “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” feel like a make-or-break moment for you?
Yeah, definitely. I wanted to get these songs out long ago, and I had been writing labels, and I had been telling them I had been making all these demos at home, and I was about to make the best country record you have ever heard. So please give me money, and you can help me record this album. Nobody was biting on it, so my husband was just dead-set that we were gonna make the best record no matter what, and we knew we needed a substantial amount of money, so he went and sold the car. And we got in there and we had to do it very quickly because we didn’t have that much money. And it all went before it was mixed or mastered or anything. And then the guy that mastered it, I definitely was like, “I’ll give you an IOU on this. I’ll get you the money” And he mastered it before I could pay him. All the money from the car was gone.

What is your songwriting process like? Do you work by yourself, or do you write the songs with the band?
I write by myself a lot, but I also love to write with other people, in particular my husband. I feel really comfortable writing with him. He’s always coming to me with ideas. He writes constantly. We’re both trying to do it as much as we can and we get very competitive with each other. If he writes a song on his own, then I’m like, that’s really good. I’m like, “Ah, I gotta write something today. Can’t let him get ahead of me.” Or if he has something that I really like, then I make sure that I get in there and work on it really hard with him. We both really enjoy co-writing with each other.

Did you two work together on the “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” songs?
Yeah, he had a hand in writing several of the songs on there. I wrote “This Town Gets Around” by myself, and “Four Years of Chances,” and “Hands of Time,” “Weekender.” Those are all songs I wrote with no help. He helped co-write most of the other ones on the album. And then Caitlin Rose and Mark Fredson helped my husband and I, we all four wrote “Hurtin’ (on the Bottle).”

Like so many that are perceived as overnight successes, you’ve been paying your dues on the road for years with Buffalo Clover. How do you feel that experience shaped you?
It’s odd when somebody I don’t know comes up to me and says they’re proud of me. I guess that’s usually people who know what the backstory is. And I’m glad that I’m not playing terrible shows anymore. A long period of hit or miss. Sometimes you’d go to a city, and it’d be a good show, but when you’re out there and you’ve never been to a town before, without a lot of exposure, it’s not easy. I always wondered if anybody was watching or if anybody was going to sign me. I just knew that I had to get out on the road and do it regardless. Just to show people that I had the work ethic. Even though I had a kid, I was willing to travel a lot and chase the dream — the elusive dream. Also, I am kind of a restless spirit anyway. I like to travel, and if I can make a little bit of money doing it while I go along, then all the better. Then, once I had a kid, I realized that I had to make this a career or I had to give it up.

papercut illustration by Dylan Metrano
papercut illustration by Dylan Metrano

Do you take your kid with you on tour?
Sometimes, if it’s a show that’s good for children to be at. But it’s not very fun to be in a van eight hours a day for a 5-year-old. Right now, school just let out, and my husband, he’s going on the road with me, and my mom has my son up in Illinois. She still lives out in the country there, where I grew up. And there’s a pond across the street from where they live, and he can go over there and catch tadpoles all day. He’s pretty content to do so.

Who’s your favorite singer, or who’s voice is your favorite?
Well, you’re asking two completely different things. I really love Dolly Parton. I think she has got amazing control and pitch. And Patsy Cline, I really love Patsy Cline’s voice. As far as writers go, I like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, so a good voice isn’t necessarily important to me. I just have to enjoy the song and the content.

Who would your dream duet partner be?
I’d like to do a duet with Willie Nelson or Loretta Lynn, but as far as people that are my own age, I really like Chris Stapleton. I think he and his wife are both supremely talented.

What’s your favorite thing about Nashville?
Well, as cliche as it sounds, the music. I think the level of musicianship here is unmatched from almost anywhere in the world. And I think I’ve got the best band. I’m real happy to have the folks playing with me that I have. They’re all incredibly talented. And I’m not just biased.

Are there any Tennessee musicians that you want everyone to hear?
Erin Rae and the Meanwhiles, Darrin Bradbury, Morgan Tyler, Adia Victoria. Mark Fresno also. He wrote one of the songs off my album. The only one that I didn’t write, “How the Mighty Have Fallen,” that’s my friend Mark Fresno’s song. Oh yeah, and Patrick Sweany, although he has a decent following. Though if you don’t know him, check him out.

Do you have any creative dreams or goals you want to realize?
Well, I’m going to be back in the studio in December here. I’ve got enough songs for a new album, definitely. I’m looking forward to doing that. I don’t know, I’m just writing as much as possible and just want to keep working.

And maybe we’ll see you on “Saturday Night Live” as a cast member?
Yes! That’s definitely a goal. You’re making me see my goals, talking to you!

Margo Price performs Friday, July 8, at 8:30 p.m. at The Music Hall Loft, 131 Congress St., Portsmouth. The show is sold out.

Margo Price performs at The Music Hall Loft in Portsmouth, NH, on July 8.
Margo Price performs at The Music Hall Loft on July 8. courtesy photo

Prince, by Seacoast NH musician Dylan Metrano

In late 1982, Prince released his fifth album, “1999.” I was 7 years old and my mom brought me home this gatefold double-LP. Until this point, my record collection consisted of only the ones with the coolest sleeves — KISS, Toto, Journey, and the like. Of course, this record blew my tiny 7-year-old mind, and I would never be the same. I hadn’t heard anything like Prince’s melting pot of rock, funk, R&B, and pop before. As it turns out, no one else had either, and his music would only get better, more singular, and popular in the coming years. I love my mom so much for knowing that her little boy needed this in his life. The infectious synth hook of “Delirious.” In my Underoos, I would chant “Dance, Music, Sex, Romance” as the record spun over and over again in our living room.

In the next few years, Prince would release more albums, have bigger hits, star in one huge pseudo-biographical movie, and perform legendary concerts. He wrote hits for other groups, too. He wrote the Bangles’ “Manic Monday” and Sinead O’ Conner’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Chaka Kahn’s “I Feel For You,” and “Stand Back” for Stevie Nicks. He wrote entire albums for The Time. He collaborated with Miles Davis, George Clinton, Madonna, Mavis Staples, Maceo Parker, and Janelle Monae. He was a monster on the guitar, and he played most of the instruments on his records.

When I was 13, my aunt Charlene took me to my first big concert. It was the Hartford, Conn., stop on Prince’s 1988 “Lovesexy” tour. He entered the stage in a white Thunderbird (referenced in “Alphabet Street” — “So glam, it’s absurd”). He shot hoops — yes, he shot hoops onstage. He played songs from the then-still-unreleased but widely bootlegged “Black Album.” In fact, the whole show was arranged so that the first half consisted of all his dirtiest, funkiest material, but after the intermission he played his most spiritual, positive songs.

I’ve since talked with my aunt about this concert, and while she appreciated the spectacle and theatricality, as well as the musicianship of the Lovesexy show, she was turned off by what she perceived as misogyny. My young mind never perceived it that way, but I know that the show was intended as a piece of theater in which Prince’s character was tempted by darkness all around him, and he ultimately turned his back on all that to embrace God, positivity, spirituality, etc. At the time, I only knew that I loved these songs, and that I had wanted to see him perform for years. His guitar looked like a cloud. The band members all looked like superheroes. Sheila E. was an incredible force behind the drums. I heard “Purple Rain” live for the first time.

Prince, by Seacoast NH musician Dylan Metrano

Over the next few years, Prince released the soundtracks to Tim Burton’s “Batman” movie (number one on Billboard; 11 copies million sold), and his own “Graffiti Bridge” ( a sort of sequel to “Purple Rain”). Then came “Diamonds and Pearls.” Released on Oct. 1, 1991, “Diamonds and Pearls” came a week after Nirvana’s “Nevermind.” I was 16, had gone to the first Lollapalooza festival, and I was immersed in the burgeoning alternative scene. Prince was feuding with his record company, would soon change his name to an unpronounceable symbol, and started forcing hip-hop and new-jack swing sounds into his music. For the first time in a decade, he was following trends instead of setting trends. I continued to collect Prince’s music; I made monthly trips to Boston to search for live bootlegs, and I subscribed to fanzines where I connected with other collectors all over the world with whom I could trade cassettes. But I was still mostly interested in his 1980s output. His new stuff didn’t excite me as much as newer bands like Royal Trux and Mudhoney. I started a noisy punk-ish band in 1992. I began to follow a different path.

But the thing is, I never really gave up on Prince. I bought “Sign O the Times” and “Parade” on LP, cassette, and compact disc. Those remain two of my favorite records to this day. In the 2000s, I discovered soul music, and I see where Prince fit cleanly in the lineage between the giants of the ’60s and ’70s, and his modern-day acolytes like D’Angelo (whose 2000 release, “Voodoo,” is a perfect album, and is clearly a love letter to Prince).

In 2000, I saw Prince again, in Worcester, Mass., at a “Hit N Run” show (he’s done several tours where he announced each show only a day or two before it happened). My boss at the record shop where I worked hooked me up with a ticket. It was pricey, but the experience was incredible. It was a stripped-down affair. No cars or basketball hoops on stage. Just hit after hit after hit. I knew at this point that I would try to see him play any time he came around. The next time I saw him was on the “Musicology” tour of 2004. It was another in an endless string of comebacks for Prince. “Musicology” was a top-five album in the U.S. My friends and I somehow scored crazy cheap tickets. We were in the nosebleed seats at the Boston Garden, and we teared up as I heard “Purple Rain” live for the third time.

The last time I saw Prince was in December of 2013 at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. My friend Casey and I were treating ourselves to all the crazy big shows we wanted to see around this time. We saw Beyonce and Justin Timberlake. But this was the big one. Almost a decade had passed since the last Prince show I had seen. He was a different person, and so was I. Casey had never seen him before. Janelle Monae opened the show, and Prince was wheeled onstage on a dolly to sing their duet “Givin’ Em What They Love,” from her album “The Electric Lady.” He sang his verse, then was wheeled away as quickly as he came. The rest of her set was fantastic. Then Prince did his own set with his band, 3rdeyegirl. Prince played hits, obscurities, covers, gospel. He played whatever he wanted. He played for hours.

Prince, by Seacoast NH musician Dylan Metrano

After two encores, the house lights came on, and everyone filed out. As we were shuffling along on our way out of the arena, we heard the rumbling of instruments from the stage. We rushed back inside and got right in front of the stage, where Prince and the three women from his band appeared for one last song. They played to a mostly empty room with the house lights on. It felt like a hallucination.

Once it was actually over, we headed to the after-show. Small room, late night. Prince was infamous for getting loose and playing off-script until the early morning. On this particular night, he didn’t play at all, but we were treated to a full show by his protégé Liv Warfield, and another set by his band the New Power Generation. The legendary Doug E. Fresh spun records between sets, rapped a little, and we all danced to old-school hip-hop, funk, and soul. Prince did make an appearance. He hung out for a few, and premiered for us the song “Funknroll,” which, at 3 in the morning, after witnessing so much Prince, sounded so alien, so fantastic, and was exactly what we wanted new Prince to sound like. Current, vital, funny, sexy, hot, perfect. At 4 in the morning, the show was over, and we drove into the night.

Casey and I agree that what we paid for that evening was the best money we ever spent.

Prince had been doing more “Hit N Run” shows in the last year, most recently solo “Piano and a Microphone” shows. I’ve been patiently waiting for one to come to the Northeast, but sadly, his last-ever show was last week in Atlanta.

I’m happy that Prince was so productive in recent years, and he was rightly received as the innovator and genius that he was. He certainly fell in and out of fashion a lot throughout his career, but it seems like he was pretty universally loved of late. He seemed to always be popping up on TV or spotted at basketball games (where he’d get a standing ovation for showing up). There was a lot of excitement around his recent albums and tours. He recently announced that he was working on an autobiography. I imagine we probably won’t ever see that, though I hope his recent reconciliation with Warner Brothers means that we will see reissues of his albums, including good-quality releases of beloved bootlegged material.

I’ll always remember Prince as the one that got me excited about music, and kept me excited in my formative years. In those days, you had to hunt down music. My searches took me from Newburyport to Boston to Minneapolis to London. I traded tapes, sent away for stuff, made my own mixes, and became friends with other collectors. It’s always exciting to meet other Prince fans. I love to find other people who have been affected by his songs like I have. The amount of amazing music he’s left is staggering. And there are stories behind all of it.

Prince almost doesn’t seem real. But he walked among us (sort of). I stood 10 feet from him once. He was small. He was a guy who loved music, who worked around the clock. He was driven and possessed. He was the most popular, most famous singer in the world once. At another time, he was putting out records that few people heard and selling them on the Internet. He championed other artists he admired. He made political music for decades. He was the best singer and the best guitar player and the best songwriter. He could dance like James Brown. He was borderline magical (see his appearance on “New Girl” in 2014). He tested the boundaries of sexuality and music and religion and commerce. He wrote songs for football teams, movies about penguins, and about the unrest in Baltimore. He wrote lots of songs about sex. His ballads are gorgeous. He wrote dance music and pop songs and funk. He covered Sheryl Crow and Radiohead. The world would be a completely different place today were it not for him.

One of Prince’s last tweets read simply, “I am #transformed.” I like this little mystery. What does it mean? Did he know he would be gone soon? I guess he was transformed. And I, too, have been transformed, slowly and steadily since that fateful morning in 1982. I am transformed today and forever.

Prince, by Seacoast NH musician Dylan Metrano

The best of the best

Prince released 39 studio albums between 1978 and 2016. There are reputedly thousands of unreleased recordings still in the vault. I have boxes of live cassettes, 12-inch singles with B-sides as good as anything released on albums. I could fill an iPod with all the MP3s I have. I still listen to Prince regularly, but I often go back to the same songs. I’ve made mixes for friends highlighting some of my favorite material, and here I’d like to recommend to you the best of the best. In chronological order:

Purple Rain “The Beautiful Ones,” “Darling Nikki,” “Purple Rain”

Around the World In A Day “Around the World In A Day,” “Paisley Park,” “Tamborine”

Parade “New Position,” “Anotherloverholenyohead,” “Sometimes it Snows in April”

Sign O the Times “Sign O the Times,” “Housequake,” “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” “Hot Thing,” “Forever in My Life,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Strange Relationship,” “The Cross,” “Adore”

The Black Album “Le Grind,” “Cindy C.,” Rockhard in a Funky Place”

Lovesexy “Alphabet St.,” “Anna Stesia,” “When 2 R in Love”

Batman “Electric Chair,” “Vicki Waiting,” “Scandalous!”

Graffiti Bridge “The Question of U,” “We Can Funk,” “Joy in Repetition,” “Thieves in the Temple,” “Still Would Stand All Time”

Diamonds and Pearls “Gett Off,” “Insatiable”

Love Symbol Album “My Name is Prince,” “Sexy MF,” “7”

Come “Come”

New Power Soul “The One”

Emancipation “Joint 2 Joint,” “Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife,” “Face Down,” “Style”

Crystal Ball “Crystal Ball,” “Movie Star,” “Crucial,” “Sexual Suicide,” “Good Love”

The Vault “Old Friends 4 Sale”

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold,” “Hot Wit’ U,” “Prettyman”

Musicology “Musicology,” “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance”

3121 “3121,” “Black Sweat”

Art Official Age “U Know,” “FunknRoll (Remix)”

Hit n Run Phase Two “Revelation”

The 3-CD box set “The Hits / The B-Sides” is indispensable, too, because of all the amazing B-Sides on disc three, including “Feel U Up,” “I Love U In Me,” “Erotic City,” “Shockadelica,” “Scarlet Pussy,” “She’s Always in My Hair,” “17 Days,” “Another Lonely Christmas,” and “Power Fantastic.”

Prince has a bunch of albums on Tidal (some pretty rare ones there, actually), and you can download them at all the normal places. Of course, every record store (or “Wrecka Stow”) everywhere has Prince albums. Usually pretty inexpensive. I recommend the ones above, but if you’re not going to get 21 albums on my recommendation, then you should start with “Purple Rain,” “Sign O the Times,” “Parade,” and “The Hits / The B-Sides.”

Final thoughts

“The Trojan Horse Aftershow” is widely considered the best of the live bootlegs, an opinion I agree with. “Still Would Stand All Time” and his cover of “Just My Imagination” are transcendent.

There’s a killer rock song called “Witness 4 the Prosecution” that I hope someday will be released.

You should see the movies “Purple Rain,” “Under the Cherry Moon,” and the concert film “Sign O the Times.” You can skip “Graffiti Bridge.”

The guitar solo he played on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at that George Harrison tribute is really that good. You can find it on YouTube.

Kevin Smith’s Prince stories are hilarious. Also at YouTube.

You can go down a pretty deep wormhole on YouTube by looking for videos of ?uestlove talking about Prince.

“Why don’t you purify yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka?”

Prince singing “Starfish and Coffee” on the Muppets is great.

I love the backup vocals that come before the main vocal on “Forever in My Life.”

I still have and wear the Prince T-shirt I got in 1988 at my first concert.

I’ve been known to play the “Batman” soundtrack on long drives with my wife to drive her crazy. She doesn’t like it. She did, however, quote “Kiss” in her wedding vows.

Best eras of Prince fashion: 1981 — briefs and leggings; 1986 — suits; 1987 — faux fur and hoop earrings.

“Sometimes it snows in April. / Sometimes I feel so bad. / Sometimes I wish life was never ending. / All good things, they say, never last.”

Singer-songwriter Julien Baker is on her way to 3S Artspace in Portsmouth.
Julien Baker. photo by Jake Cunningham

Julien Baker writes songs that live in darkened corners. They’re full of doubt and fear, but ultimately offer hope. That same sort of contradiction is in Baker’s voice itself: fragile and commanding, regal yet vulnerable.

The 20-year-old Tennessee-based singer-songwriter made her debut in the fall of 2015 with “Sprained Ankle,” an understated album that deliberately unfolds to reveal hidden layers. It’s mostly guitar and voice, but the guitar is looped and layered in a way that creates a phosphorescent shimmer underneath her singular voice.

Baker is on tour in support of “Sprained Ankle,” and her next stop is Portsmouth, where she’ll perform at 3S Artspace on Saturday, April 23. The Sound spoke with Baker about making music, mosh pits, and why she wants to become a teacher.

You’ve toured a lot since “Sprained Ankle” came out. How has it been, trying to translate these very intimate songs to larger venues?

It is strange playing larger venues. I am so grateful for the opportunity to play larger rooms because it is incredible to see that more people are listening and sharing the songs, but I think that when I was doing the first small tours over a year ago, it felt like the intimacy of the songs matched the intimacy of the settings and small turnout, which was comforting. However, it’s inspiring to play to different types of audiences and see people respond. I try more and more to be candid with show-goers. I can never think of good on-stage banter, so I end up trying to have an awkward conversation with the room. I try to be chipper and a little goofy because that’s me, and hopefully it’s disarming to more than just me. Also, talking to listeners before and after the show is amazing, and I think that’s one thing that I like to do because it reinforces the humanity of live sets. It’s not just a detached performance, it’s an interaction with a bunch of living, breathing people who care about art and have feelings and experiences. That’s something precious to me.

What is your songwriting process like?

It typically starts with me sitting at the piano or playing guitar and experimenting with different riffs, playing or singing whatever comes to mind, and a lot of it is just unusable nonsense, but then maybe I find one I like, and then I will make a memo on my phone and walk around or drive around listening to it and think about the lyrics, how to refine them, how I should move around parts or restructure the song. I also keep a draft open on my phone of lyrics that I think of to use later, in the car or at the store. So there’s the initial creation of a rough idea, and then the re-forming and gradual shaping, which might take a day or a week, you never know, until I feel like it is a finished product.

Were the songs on “Sprained Ankle” always supposed to be performed and recorded solo? Have you performed these songs with a band?

Yes, the songs were written while I was by myself, using a loop pedal to make layers if I wanted them there, or relying on just piano/minimal guitar. Since they were written within those parameters, they were always intended to be performed that way!

While I love your guitar playing, I like the piano on “Go Home”. Are there piano versions of other songs as well?

I wrote “Go Home” on the piano, just like I wrote the guitar-driven songs while playing the guitar, so there aren’t necessarily piano versions of the other songs. It’s just a matter of what instrument was used as a writing tool. But, that’s not to say they couldn’t be arranged for the piano at some point, which is a possibility.

Whose is your favorite voice?

So hard to choose! I love Elena Tonra’s (of the band Daughter) voice — it’s very haunting and pure, which is a big part of what makes their music so beautiful to me. But at the same time, one of my favorite vocalists of all time is Anthony Green of Circa Survive, not just because of his objective talent and range, but because the timbre of his voice is so powerful and visceral. Two ends of the spectrum.

If you could write a song for anyone to sing, who would it be?

I think I would have to say Kimbra, just because her vocal skill and tonality is out-of-this-world mind blowing, and I feel like she has the capacity to surpass genre and perform any style flawlessly. I mean, look at “The Golden Echo” —she can sing anything.

Do you have a go-to karaoke song?

I have actually never done karaoke, so knowing nothing about what is usually on the catalog of available songs I would — if I ever dare to do karaoke — cross my fingers and hope Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like A Woman” is on the list.

You’ve had the opportunity to tour a lot since the release of your album. How has it been, trying to translate these very intimate songs to larger venues?

It is strange playing larger venues; I am so grateful for the opportunity to play larger rooms because it is incredible to see that more people are listening and sharing the songs, but I think that when I was doing the first small tours over a year ago, it felt like the intimacy of the songs matched the intimacy of the settings and small-turnout, which was comforting. However, it’s inspiring to play to different types of audiences and see people respond. I try more and more to be candid with show-goers, I can never think of good on-stage banter, so I end up trying to have an awkward conversation with the room. I try to be chipper and a little goofy because that’s me … and hopefully it’s disarming to more than just me. Also, talking to listeners before and after the show is amazing, and I think that’s one thing that I like to do because it reinforces the humanity of live sets. It’s not just a detached performance — it’s an interact with a bunch of living breathing people who care about art and have feelings and experiences. That’s something precious to me.

Any tips for staying sane, healthy, and amused while on the road?

As far as tips for staying sane and healthy, I have had to come up with various coping methods for the challenges of touring. Even though playing live music is my favorite thing, and I am beyond grateful to have my passion of music also be my primary occupation, it can be demanding in a psychological way. For instance, I get extremely anxious before shows, and so if I feel like I am going to start panicking, I go on a long walk before doors open, or I will do some meditation/prayer before shows to refocus and put fears in perspective. It’s also difficult being away from home; there’s the risk of feeling displaced, or like there’s no certainty in the day-to-day. So, I try to do little things to maintain a routine — on this last tour, I went on a run every day, which helped especially since running has replaced smoking as my way to burn off nervous energy in the last year.

Any favorite places you’ve visited so far?

It’s difficult to say one place is my favorite, I think I love to visit local stuff and find cool places within each town, so that each place is special for a different reason, exploring a city is like getting to know a new friend in that way. One of my favorite places I have visited though is The Vera Project in Seattle. I think they have a great mission/community outreach thing going on,;it was at once very tied to the culture and vibe of the city, and reminiscent of home because it reminded me of Smith 7 and the kids back home that are just as excited to learn about and participate in music.

You’re going to school to become a teacher. Which teachers have inspired you?

I have had the fortune of having more than one awesome teacher invest in me and give me an appreciation of the space teachers occupy in shaping society. For instance, I became a fan of Bruce Springsteen when I was an adolescent kid, and my English teacher read us “Jungleland” as a poem. I have (Gabriel Garcia) Marquez tattoos because I had a Spanish teacher who promoted an appreciation of world literature in class. I had a humanities teacher who would play my high-school band’s CD in his classroom. And even at Middle Tennessee State University, there have been professors who went above and beyond and encouraged me not only in intellectual pursuits but in artistic endeavors and motivated me to believe in myself enough to take opportunities like touring full-time.

What draws you to teaching?

Seeing the immense positive impact teachers can have on kids and the community that goes far beyond their subject area or course content. Literature, art, and music are things I am very passionate about and if I decided to switch gears from music, I would still want to be active in the liberal arts not just as a diversion, but as a platform to exchange with others, and working with youth is a great way to do that.

papercut illustration by Dylan Metrano
papercut illustration by Dylan Metrano

In what direction would you like to take your music?

I think that in my future musical pursuits I would love to just explore more possibilities, experiment with more instrumentation, or to add a collaborative element — bring in my other musician friends and just play around with other people’s additions. I think I will always be a proponent of the “less is more” mentality and be a fan of the stripped down approach, but after a record characterized by limitations that demand sparseness and solitary writing, it would be interesting to thoughtfully incorporate fellow artists’ pieces in some way.

What are your interests outside of music? Are you a big reader, or like movies? What might people be surprised to learn about you?

I am a big reader — no surprise from a lit major, haha. I actually just read an amazing book by Woody Guthrie (who knew he wrote prose?) called “House of Earth.” But that’s not to say I don’t like other media. I am a big Marvel nerd, and have been all about the “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil” TV series recently.

What do you find scary? What do you find beautiful?

A very open-ended question! There are many things that scare me — for instance, I am scared of the future in the wake of our precarious political climate, but I am also scared of large dogs and driving in heavy traffic.  

Similarly, there are simple and complex things that I find beautiful. That might even be harder than choosing what scares me, because there is some redeemable, beautiful quality in nearly everything. I think mosh pits are beautiful. I was reading an interview with Savages where one of them says that mosh pits can be an expression of love, and I think that’s true. They represent the dichotomy of violence, anger, misplaced aggression, worked out and shared within an audience that is responding radically to music they love, connected by the show experience. There’s an artist, Dan Witz, who did a series of hyper-realistic impressionist style paintings of mosh pits and pushed that line, showing that something “ugly” is actually something beautiful — that it can be art. Just like another thing I find beautiful: graffiti on trains. Street art, in general, is fascinating to me because of the intrinsically public nature of the visual art, but also because of its anonymity. Even more so on trains. When you are driving and get stopped by a train at a railroad crossing, you could be upset that you are set back five minutes, or you could look at it as this amazing instance where you are forced to witness a mobile art gallery placed there by anonymous painters who knew they would not be recognized for their art and did it anyway, to put it out there, for you to see, and that is something I find beautiful.

Julien Baker performs Saturday, April 23 at 9 p.m. at 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth. Tickets are $13 and are available at 3sarts.org

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John McCauley formed Deer Tick some 12 years ago in Providence, R.I., and the band quickly gained a reputation for their raucous, free-spirited live sets and McCauley’s sharp songwriting. The band is also known for embracing their influences — they’ve covered entire albums by Elvis Costello, NRBQ, and, most famously, Nirvana. In fact, McCauley was one of the few singers chosen to front Nirvana for one night only, following their induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. Their approach is expansive; they borrow from punk, blues, country, soul, and dozens of genres, but the sum of their sound is singular.

Since the release of their most recent album, “Negativity,” in 2013, the band’s been touring relentlessly. Their next stop is 3S Artspace in Portsmouth on March 15, part of Deer Tick’s spring “acoustic” tour. The Sound caught up with McCauley about Deer Tick’s early shows in Portsmouth, barbecue, and the meaning of rock ’n’ roll.

Deer Tick is embarking on an “acoustic” tour. Why the quotation marks?
It won’t be entirely acoustic. First of all, (keyboard player) Rob (Crowell) has an organ, which is a red flag right off the bat. (Bassist) Chris (Ryan) will be switching between electric and upright bass, and while I’d like (guitarist) Ian (O’Neil) to play mostly acoustic guitar, he may end up surprising us. I’m playing acoustic guitar, bouzouki, mandolin, a real piano … a bunch of stuff no one’s ever seen me play before.

Did you ever see that Springsteen “MTV Unplugged” show where he plays one song on the acoustic guitar, then the band comes out and plays a full electric set?
While I haven’t seen the Boss unplugged, I can say we’re probably not going to do anything that un-acoustic.

Are there any plans for an acoustic Deer Tick album? Two years have gone by since your last album. What have you got in the works?
We’re still coming up with ideas for the next album, or albums. We’ve got a good amount of material that spans quite a few genres, so we are deciding on how to split them up, either by mood or instrumentation.

What are your memories of your early days playing in Portsmouth in the early 2000s?
I used to love coming up to Portsmouth to play. I still do, I just don’t get up there as often. I used to play solo at The Red Door a lot. Nat Baldwin and I are old friends, so we’d often play together. Hi Nat! I used to play drums in this grunge band called Engine Knock. Besides one show in Warwick, R.I., Portsmouth was the only time we ever played outside of Providence. We played a show in somebody’s basement. As soon as we hit the first note an office chair flew across the room and a topless woman wielding a machete started running though the crowd. It was intense.

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Paper cut illustration of John McCauley, by Dylan Metrano

You live in Nashville; does it feel like home now? What’s the best part about living there?
I’d say so. My producer friend Adam Landry runs my favorite studio in the world here (Playground Sound), which is a nice perk of living here.

Where’s the best barbecue?
Nashville’s not known for its barbecue the same way Memphis is, so I don’t eat a whole lot of it. If you wanted barbecue, though, I’d recommend Martin’s. The local specialty is hot chicken. The best place for hot chicken is the original spot: Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. This is nothing like buffalo chicken.

Deer Tick has done many covers, and you even got to front Nirvana for a moment. Whose voice would you most like to hear sing one of your songs?
I used to joke about Adele singing one of my songs. Then I wrote a new song called “Only Love” and was like, “Oh shit, Adele really could sing this song.”

What is your songwriting process like? Have you considered getting into the Nashville songwriting business?
Nah. I can’t write as an assignment. I write to purge myself emotionally. I can’t write with dollar figures in my head. I would like to write for video games, or more movies — I did one documentary called “Oxyana.” I don’t seem to hit the same roadblocks when writing instrumental pieces; for some reason it’s different than writing a song about trucks and Bud Light for a million dollars.

Do you see Deer Tick as a lifelong pursuit? Can you picture yourself as an old man fronting this band?
I’m not sure. I think a big part of this “acoustic” tour for us was to see if we’ve still “got it.” I imagine as I get older, I’ll probably do more and more stuff away from the band, but as long as the band is working, I see no reason to quit.

I’d like to hear you do an album of songs like “What Kind of Fool Am I?” Might there ever be a “John McCauley Sings the Great American Songbook,” or should we just go to a karaoke bar?
I would love to do that, but I’d have to do it with a really fantastic jazz band. In the meantime, I’m planning on doing a solo record of all covers of a friend of mine. I’m not going to work on it until after Deer Tick finishes the next record, but I’ve already assembled a really great group of players for it.

What does rock ’n’ roll mean to you?
Freedom, I guess.

Deer Tick performs Tuesday, March 15 at 8 p.m. at 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth, with Mutual Benefit. Tickets are $25, available at 3sarts.org.

In January 2014, Sasheer Zamata joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” halfway through its 39th season. Her addition was a long time coming for the show — Zamata was the first black woman to join the show’s cast in seven years. And it was the fulfillment of a life-long dream for Zamata, who’d wanted to be on the show ever since she was a child.

Before she made it to “SNL,” Zamata spent years honing her act, with regular stand-up and improv shows, stints with the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe, and her own Web series, “Pursuit of Sexiness.”

While “SNL” is on summer break, Zamata is on the road for her latest stand-up tour. She’ll be in Portsmouth at 3S Artspace on Saturday, Aug. 8. The Sound recently caught up with her about improv, living in New York, and the only time she’s been star-struck on “SNL.”

Did the characters you and Nicole Byer portray in your Web series “Pursuit of Sexiness” originate onstage at the Upright Citizens Brigade?
The characters Nicole and I play in “Pursuit of Sexiness” are heightened versions of ourselves. Everything in the series stems from a place of truth, so the scenarios and characters we deal with are loosely based on things we’ve encountered in real life.

How did the series come about?
The series came about when Nicole came to me and said she wanted to write a series on “two awful people,” and I said, “I’m down.”

Would you want to see it as a television show, or do you prefer it as a series of shorts?
I like having the series online, so we can play out ideas in small digestible chunks, but I wouldn’t turn down a TV deal if someone offered it to us.

Will there be another season?
Yes, we already have another season written and we’re hoping to shoot it in the fall.

You co-founded an improv troupe at the University of Virginia, then went on to perform with the UCB in New York. You do stand-up, as well as scripted comedy on “SNL” and on the Web. These are all pretty different types of performing. What do you feel most comfortable doing? Is it important for you to continue doing improv?
You’re right — these are different types of performance. I don’t know if there is a form that I feel most comfortable doing. I like them all, and I keep doing them because they’re all still fun to me. That’s kind of how I decide to do most things in my life: “Do I think this is fun?” If yes, then I’ll do it, if no, then I have to question why I’m really doing it. And I think I’ll always love improv. It’s how I first got into comedy, and I love creating a new thing with people on stage each time I do it.

Was getting on “SNL” a longtime ambition for you?
Yeah, I’ve wanted to be on “SNL” since I was a kid. Someone in one of my middle-school classes told me she could see me on “SNL,” and I took that as the highest compliment. I can’t remember who gave me that compliment, but I never forgot the words.

How has the experience been compared to your expectations? So much has been written about how intense and stressful, yet exciting, it is to work on the show. Was it difficult joining the cast mid-season?
Joining the show mid-season actually wasn’t that bad. I was thrown into the mix very quickly, so I didn’t have too much time to think about what was happening, which also meant I didn’t have too much time to stress. And everyone at the show was really good about catching me up with the process when I got there.

You’ve been called one of the “most stylish New Yorkers” and “one of the funniest people in Brooklyn.” Whose style do you admire, and who do you think is funny?
Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Fran Drescher, Sarah Silverman, Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, (and) Pam Grier.

Between the cast, hosts, and musical guests, do you ever get star-struck at “SNL”?
I think the only time I couldn’t function is when I met Beyoncé. I’m such a huge fan of hers, and I think I stayed relatively composed when speaking to her, but my mind truly left the planet in that moment.

Do you like touring? Where are your favorite places to visit? Would you ever want to live anywhere else? What’s the best thing about living in New York?
I do love touring! I really love traveling and performing, and if I can do that at the same time it’s such a treat. I love seeing other cities and seeing what their art/comedy scenes look like. And that’s kind of what I love about New York, too. You can walk six blocks and basically be in a different world. I love how diverse this city is, makes it more exciting.

Do you plan on making movies? Are you working on any new projects now?
Yes and yes.

What makes you happy?
Pizza!

Sasheer Zamata performs Saturday, Aug. 8 at 8 p.m. at 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth. Tickets are $20 and are available at 3sarts.org.

Top of page: photo by Cate Hellman

For a decade, San Francisco’s Thao Nguyen has been making idiosyncratic, emotional pop music that doesn’t sound like anyone else. Her rich, expressive voice blends seamlessly with her tight, rhythmic band, the Get Down Stay Down, creating joyous, charged music that you can dance to.

Nguyen has collaborated with The Portland Cello Project and Joanna Newsom, and has released a full-length collaborative album with the singer-songwriter Mirah. In 2012, she toured as a part of WNYC’s Radiolab live show “In the Dark.” The most recent Thao and the Get Down Stay Down album, “We the Common,” was inspired by Nguyen’s work with the California Coalition of Women Prisoners.

Thao and the Get Down Stay Down will be in Portsmouth as part of the Prescott Park Arts Festival on July 8. We caught up with Nguyen by email while she was playing a festival in Vietnam. She talked about touring with Radiolab, working with Mirah and Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards, and making a country record.

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photo by Lauren Tabak

What have you been up to in the last couple of years, since “We the Common” came out in 2013?
I’ve been touring and writing and recording and working more with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and trying to go to yoga.

What was it like touring with the Radiolab live show? What did you learn from being on the road with them?
I loved touring with Radiolab — I loved being part of such a multi-faceted show, with Pilobolus dancers and amazing visual effects. I learned so much about storytelling and presentation.

What was the process of working on your collaboration with Mirah (and Merrill Garbus) like? You toured together prior to the recording. Were you working out arrangements on tour with a later recording in mind?
Mirah and I each wrote about four or five songs and we worked out all arrangements with Merrill in the studio. I am great friends with and huge fans of both — they’ve inspired me a great deal, both musically and writing-wise.

Do you have a routine with regard to writing? A special place or time of day that you set out to work?
I try to exercise and then write every day, but it’s looking like no matter how disciplined I am, I have to wait ‘til the last minute and freak out, then cram. Like I did in college.

You’ll be playing in Vietnam soon. How did that come about, and what are you most looking forward to about this trip?
Hello from Vietnam! We were invited to play in Hanoi by the U.S. Embassy. We’ve been having an amazing time and I was able to bring my mom, who hasn’t been back since 1973. I wanted to see Vietnam for the first time by her side, so it’s been quiet poignant and sweet.

“We like for everyone at our shows to have a good time. I can promise our sincere best effort and gratitude.”

Have you ever considered making a country album? Do you have any as-yet unrealized musical aspirations?
I have considered making a country album. I don’t know if we have enough for a whole one; I like to just sneak one (country song) onto every record. My musical aspiration is to always make things I like to hear, and say things I think are important to say.

Who or what do you find inspiring?
My mom, the California Coalition of Women Prisoners, people who don’t always choose the money, single parents, amazing organizers, and social activists.

How do you keep happy and healthy on the road?
Exercise, stopping at health food stores, eating kale-like chips, trying to meditate for a few minutes every morning, sleeping as much as we can, staying grateful, and remembering we are so lucky to do this for a living.

What do you listen to while driving?
I listen to NPR and whatever my bandmates are listening to, in addition to old country and early ’90s hip hop and sad shit that’s good for staring at long expanses of highway.

Where are some of your favorite places to visit?
In the U.S., I like Austin and Chicago and good food cities.

Have you played in New Hampshire before?
I can’t remember if we’ve played New Hampshire before, but I’m looking forward to it!

What can we be looking forward to from you?
We like for everyone at our shows to have a good time. I can promise our sincere best effort and gratitude. Also, we have a new album coming out next year.

Thao and the Get Down Stay Down perform Wednesday, July 8 at 7 p.m. at the Prescott Park Arts Festival, Marcy Street, Portsmouth. There is a suggested donation of $8-$10. Tickets are available at prescottpark.org.

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papercut illustration by Dylan Metrano
Top of page: Thao Nguyen in the grass. photo by Connie Aramaki

Baltimore’s Lower Dens released its third album in March. The band’s leader, Jana Hunter, has been a fixture in the independent music community for years, first attracting attention on the Devendra Banhart-curated compilation “Golden Apples of the Sun,” and performing with a vast number of bands, including Phosphorescent and Cocorosie. When she debuted Lower Dens in 2010, the band’s new wave/post-punk sound was a departure from her rootsy origins. The band is dynamic, eerie, moving, and powerful.

Lower Dens will be at 3S Artspace in Portsmouth with openers Gem Club on Monday, June 22. The Sound recently spoke to Hunter about collaboration, being in other bands, and how Baltimore has shaped the band’s style.

To read an interview with Gem Club’s Christopher Barnes, click here.

MUSIC_LowerDens_byDylanMetrano_Christopher-Barnes-and-Jana-Hunter
A papercut illustration of Gem Clubs’ Christopher Barnes and Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter. (by Dylan Metrano)

Lower Dens’ sound is in sharp contrast to your earlier solo music. How different is the process of working on music with the band?
I started the band because I wanted to write in the context of community for the purpose of community. I’d written songs that I never intended to share, or that certainly weren’t written with an intention to share, and it was therefore difficult as a solo artist to ever feel really comfortable sharing them. I needed other people to draw me out of myself, and to be able to hear voices (both physical voices and creative perspectives) other than my own to be able to make songs that I was certain would at least have the generosity (inherent in collaboration) that is necessary to making an object presentable to a community. A thing can be made to be shared if it’s created in isolation, but that’s a much more rare talent than those I possess.

What is your creative process like?
It changes for whatever reason. This time, the band started writing together and probably would’ve finished that way but for the early departure of one of our members. The rest of us took that hard and retreated to separate corners. I finished a lot of what we’d started, got it close, wrote vocals and lyrics, and then took it back to the band in the first phases of production so that we could cement the arrangements and the final aesthetic layers together.

Looking back at “Golden Apples of the Sun,” just about every artist on there is still vital or well-established. It’s a pretty great snapshot of a moment. How did it feel to be a part of that when it came out, and how do you look back at it now?
I was confused by it. On the one hand, I was so impressed with those musicians and so enamored of their work that I couldn’t have been happier to be included with them. I was and am very grateful to Devendra. On the other, I didn’t consider myself to be in any kind of folk tradition, so I didn’t know what I was doing there. Looking back, you know, what a time. And I miss Jack Rose.

How has Baltimore shaped Lower Dens? Do you feel like a part of a community there
Baltimore is what inspired me to look to community for growth. It was a little different when I got here, a little smaller, weirder, more tightly knit. Our band wouldn’t exist without Baltimore, both because of that community and because Baltimore is a poor, oppressed town in which artists could get away with barely paying anything for rent.

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Lower Dens

Is there anything you want people to know about the recent events there?
I do wish there was a lot that people knew about what happened here, but I think it’s hard to understand it if you’re not there to see it. I would recommend reading pieces and first-hand accounts by the black people that grew up here in poverty and under oppression. I would recommend never trusting mainstream media not to sell you the most marketable version of events.

You spent years touring and collaborating with a variety of bands, including Castanets, Phosphorescent, and Cocorosie. Do you miss being in someone else’s band? What did you learn from those experiences?
I really love being in my band right now. It doesn’t leave me lacking anything. There are a few people locally that I hope to collaborate with, but, for the most part, I am not keen on dividing my focus.

Outside of music, what inspires you?
People who work for the truth, people whose goals have them aiming at invisible targets, people who know themselves, people.

Whose is your favorite voice?
Right now, it’s Waheeda Massey’s on Archie Shepp’s “Quiet Dawn.”

What can we expect in the future from Lower Dens?
I don’t know. It’s the best.

Lower Dens performs Monday, June 22 at 8 p.m. at 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth. Gem Club opens. Tickets are $20, available at 3sarts.org

Top of page: Jana Hunter of Lower Dens. (photo by Frank Hamilton)

Christopher Barnes formed Gem Club in Boston about five years ago, inspired by the RPM Challenge to write and record an album in a month. They quickly perfected a minimalist, quiet, and beautiful sound that set them apart, and released their third album, “In Roses,” in 2014. Gem Club now consists of Barnes with cellist Kristen Drymala and singer Ieva Berberian.

Gem Club will perform alongside Lower Dens at 3S Artspace on June 22. The Sound recently spoke to Barnes about collaborating with other bands and how the city of Boston has influenced his music.

For an interview with Jana Hunter of Lower Dens, click here.

Gem Club formed as an RPM project in 2010. Was it difficult for you to write the first album in a month?
Yeah. Actually, some of the songs that I wrote during that month in February would eventually become the “Acid and Everything” EP — there were a few that didn’t make the cut. It was a little difficult to write in that short amount of time, but that’s mostly because there were a lot of external factors at work keeping in the way of progress. I was finishing up school, I was changing apartments, and there was some pretty significant snow that year as well. I think I ended up writing and recording the thing in about two weeks. The RPM Challenge was a lot of fun because it didn’t allow for any time to second guess myself. I wrote, recorded, and worried about it later.

Why did you decide to record “In Roses” at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco? How did that experience differ from recording at home? What were your goals for that album?
“In Roses” was a bigger record than “Breakers” — there was more that I wanted to incorporate in terms of instrumentation and ideas. When I was ready to record, I was visiting a lot of studios. A few on the East Coast, one in New York, I visited a couple in Iceland. They were all incredible and each studio had something to offer that another wouldn’t, so it was difficult to choose. I spent a lot of time talking with John Vanderslice at Tiny, telling him what I wanted for the record. John played a show out here in Boston and I went out to meet with him. He was just gracious and transparent and assured me that Tiny was where I needed to make this record happen. He’s very charismatic. Aside from being able to track to tape, I also had the chance to work with Minna and Magik Magik Orchestra. I’d sent a lot of demos to Minna and we worked for a long time on arrangements, especially “First Weeks” and “Polly.” I remember I had this very gothic ending for “Polly” that I had tracked at the house. I just stacked Kristen’s cello over and over again. It was a bit morose and intense in feeling. I sent it to Minna and she took elements from that and fired back this version to me and it was just completely romantic. It was sad and romantic and beautiful. We tracked with Jamie Riotto who is basically a tape wizard. Aside from creating this supportive environment where I could record and discuss and deconstruct these extremely personal songs, Jamie is just extraordinarily talented at what he does. And it was a very foreign experience for me. I’m used to tracking everything at my house and micromanaging everything down to the last detail. You can’t do that with tape. If you don’t like it, you throw it out and do it over. I couldn’t save anything to my desktop and fix it later.

The band has a distinct visual style in its artwork and videos. How do you go about finding collaborators, and what is the process like in working with artists in other media? Is the visual element something you’re aware of as you are developing music, or does it come later?
The process of finding video collaborators comes much later, after the writing and the recording is done. Honestly, I prefer to allow filmmakers to interpret the song on their own and present a concept to me first. I mean, I can tell you when it’s presented what I like and what I don’t like, but with the video collaborations, for instance, I want whoever I’m working with to have an honest reaction to my work. I think that’s been the case so far, and I’ve been fortunate to work with incredibly talented people who have generously lent themselves to collaboration. The album artwork is a little bit of a different story. I very much sought out these artists because I had a reaction to their work and they were gracious enough to let me use it for the record covers.

How does living and working in Boston affect your creative process? Do you feel like part of a community there? What’s going on in Boston that you are excited about these days?
There’s a wealth of creativity here. There are also a lot of communities making and exchanging art. I think the difficulty is trying to tap into those resources.

Do you have a non-musical creative outlet?
I don’t have a non-musical creative outlet. I’ve tried my hand at some other mediums. I’m not very skilled at painting or drawing. I have a hard time with geometry and spatial relations. But I’ve never just sat down and tried to make something either, so maybe if I could stop trying to control it, I could have fun with it.

What art or artists inspire you?
I really enjoy film and literature. I think a lot of my songs are inspired by these sources when they’re not influenced by my own experiences. I just picked up this wonderful book by Fuji Sakuko called “Grandfather’s Envelopes.” The book is basically photographs of paper envelopes that her grandfather had made while she was growing up. She found them saved years later, took photographs of them, and then compiled them in this book. Many of the envelopes are designed like patchwork. Most paper was so thin it looked like it would get torn, so he backed it up with other paper to make it thicker. When you start to see each envelope by itself spread over the page you can really feel its strength. You can see so many different expressions in his work.

How does Gem Club work? Can you tell me about the songwriting and arranging process?
I write the songs, most from start to finish, by myself, and then work with Kristen and Ieva on completing their parts or arrangements. Ieva has an outstanding sense of harmony, so mostly I just sit in the room with her while she sings and we pick out parts that we like and work on those. “Idea for Strings,” from “Roses,” was really one of the first songwriting collaborations. Ieva had emailed me a file literally titled “Idea for strings” where she had layered her voice multiple times over and said, “Just imagine that my vocals here are actually played by strings and we can replace the voices with Kristen’s cello or a quartet or something.” And I wrote her back saying that was a good idea, but I’d rather leave her vocals in where they are. They were so dramatic and full. So, from there, I started to write the lyrics around some of her chords. We were having a difficult time deciding how it should finish, though. I remember we were a few days away from going to Tiny. I told her that if this song was going to make the record it would need an ending, so please just go home and write anything. She went home and the next morning I got an email and she was like, “This is my idea, but I’m not really sure it’s going to work,” and I opened it and played it and it was just perfect. I couldn’t imagine ending the song any other way.

What would your dream collaboration be?
I have many, many dream collaborations. I think some of them are more realistic than others. Hmmm. I’d love to collaborate or even be in the same recording environment as: Gas, Julianna Barwick, Chelsea Wolfe, Low, Olafur Arnalds, Agnes Obel, Rachel Grimes, Stars of the Lid, Tindersticks — this is basically just turning into a list of artists I love.

What are you looking forward to this summer, and what’s next for Gem Club? Can we expect new music soon?
I’m working on new material. More soon.

Gem Club and Lower Dens perform Monday, June 22 at 8 p.m. at 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth. Gem Tickets are $20, available at 3sarts.org.

 

In March, 22-year-old Mike Dunbar, frontman of the Portsmouth-based band Black Agnes, was awarded a grant from College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., to travel across the country on a musical pilgrimage. He and bandmate Collin Garcia hit the road on Sunday, May 24, and have stops planned in music meccas such as New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, and San Francisco. During their journey, they’ll busk, collaborate with local musicians, blog about their stops, and develop material for a new album they plan to release in July. Before the trip got underway, The Sound caught up with Dunbar about traveling historic highways, the benefits of impromptu shows, and his plans for a meeting at Robert Johnson’s grave.

What inspired you to set out on this trip?
I have always been a lover of history, especially music history. Last October, I got a chance to drive up historic Highway 61 in the Mississippi Delta. It’s an important route in the history of the blues, as it was taken by Delta blues artists on their way north toward Chicago. Bob Dylan’s album “Highway 61, Revisited” also alludes to this famous road. When I left, I knew I had to go back, and to travel further. As a songwriter, I wanted to take part in the long tradition of traveling musicians and make a collection of songs about the experience.

Do you have shows set up or are you looking to do more impromptu performances?
This is not a tour. We will be performing on the street, at open mics, and sitting in with musicians where we can. I chose not to make this a tour because it will allow us to really experience the places we go, rather than simply worrying about getting to the next gig. It will also give us a chance to share my original music with people in the cities and towns we visit, rather than having to play mostly covers.

“I am thrilled to go stand where my musical ancestors stood.” — Mike Dunbar

Is the route completely planned, or are you figuring it out as you go along?
The route is largely planned, due to time and money constraints. Of course, I would have loved to really “ramble,” but the budget is pretty tight. That said, I think there is something to be said for the discipline we will have. We will have many eight-hour driving days. We will eat light, sleep in campsites and hostels. In this way, we really will be music pilgrims with clear destinations in mind, and I think this will be vital to the experience.


What made you choose the specific cities you want to hit? Are you modeling the trip after any others?
The cities we have chosen are places that have helped define the course of American music. New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, etc. I have also attempted to trace out some important historical migration patterns. The first is the movement from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. The second is the movement from the Midwest to California via Route 66. This isn’t simply about going and taking pictures in tourist traps. This trip will bring us into close contact with American history, with historic places themselves, and in doing so, provide rich material for artistic expression.


Will you be seeking collaborations along the way?
I want to perform with as many musicians as possible this summer. That said, one exciting collaboration is already in the works. New England Music Award-winning producer of the year Brian Coombes will be meeting Collin and I in Greenwood, Miss. at the site of blues legend Robert Johnson’s grave. There, Brian will record my original songs with a mobile recording unit.

MUSIC_Collin-Garcia_left_Mike-Dunbar_right_by_Nick-ZottosCollin Garcia (left) and Mike Dunbar (photo by Nick Zottos)

How do you think this trip will affect your songwriting?
I can already tell this trip will help my songwriting grow and mature. Songwriters are always on the lookout for the little ironies in life, hoping to tease out truth from human experience. This trip will give me an excellent opportunity to do just that.

Assuming you come home with new songs, writing, and video footage, are you planning on some sort of presentation for folks back home when you return?
The music will be presented on the blog and, I hope, in a physical CD. There will be a great deal of photos, videos, and stories on (the blog) that people can enjoy as we go along. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to collaborate with a filmmaker to work these materials together into some sort of documentary down the road.

What are you most excited about? What are you most afraid of?
I am thrilled to go stand where my musical ancestors stood. I’m excited to spend long hours on the road, to eat lots of peanut butter and jelly, to miss home, to finally see the ocean again in San Francisco, and to learn things I didn’t know about myself and others. And sure, there are scary parts about being on the open road. That’s what makes it an adventure.

Any tips for eating well on the road and staying healthy and sane?
Eating healthy and eating economically might prove difficult. Still, we will make eating and staying healthy a priority. Devi Lockwood, an environmental advocate who bikes around the world, stressed this to me. As for sanity, I think we’ll just have to take it a day at a time!

Follow Dunbar and Garcia’s progress online at suitcaseandguitar.com.

Top of page: Mike Dunbar in the studio (photo by Nick Zottos)

Lady Lamb
Lady Lamb photo by Shervin Lainez

Aly Spaltro started recording and performing as Lady Lamb the Beekeeper in Brunswick, Maine in 2007. Her self-released albums quickly garnered a lot of attention thanks to her hyper-literate songwriting and complex arrangements. In 2010, she moved to Brooklyn and released her acclaimed album “Ripley Pine” in 2013. She’s performed worldwide, both solo and with a band, sharing stages with a diverse group of acts from Television to Beirut.

In March, Spaltro shortened her moniker to Lady Lamb, and Mom + Pop Music released her newest album, the fun, moving pop-rock record, “After.” Spaltro and the band finish a two-month tour at The Press Room in Portsmouth on May 13. The Sound recently caught up with Spaltro to talk about casettes, the difference between performing solo and with a band, and what kind of fan mail she receives.

How did moving to New York affect your creative process?
I don’t really feel like moving to New York has affected my creative process beyond having to play quieter without a practice space. I did find parts of my range through having to be conscious of how much noise I’m making.

Are you inspired by the city?
I think of living in New York as more of a utility than anything — though I love my neighborhood, I’m not very inspired by the city.

Could you ever see yourself living in Maine again?
My heart is in Maine and I will certainly return one day!

You alternate between being a solo performer and fronting a band. What is the appeal in either approach, and how do you determine which you choose?
I find different appeal to both approaches. I love playing with a band to bring my arrangements to life as they were recorded, but I also find a lot of value in the intimacy of the solo performance. I like that I can play a show that includes both.

The arrangements on your recordings can be quite wild. What is the process like in taking a guitar and vocals-based song and turning it into something more epic and twistier?
The process involves a lot of stacking of instruments followed by subtracting. I really love to work with dynamics and moving the floor out from under all the instrumentation to take things back to (something) bare. Where I feel like the moment could benefit from a more frenetic arrangement, I leave in a lot of the more dense arrangements.

LadyLamb_AfterCoverThe cover art for Lady Lamb's latest album, "After."

Pre-orders of your new album “After” came with postcards that folks could send back to you. What kinds of things have been written and sent to you? Have you found this to be a successful way to connect with people?
I get a lot of emails and letters (and postcards!) and each and every one means the world to me. Most times I find myself in tears at what people say. They’ll send me poems, or words of thanks, or stories about themselves, and sometimes the hardships they have gone through. I feel very fortunate to be supported by such loving and thoughtful people, and it’s my joy in life to write music that helps others through trying times in their lives.

What or who do you find inspiring these days? Whose art knocks your socks off? Is there anyone out there that you’re interested in collaborating with that you haven’t before?
I’m really inspired by a handful of artists these days. A couple I’ve followed for many years, and a couple artists I’ve gotten into recently. I would love to collaborate with Sufjan Stevens, and I have for many years. I’m really into his newest album, “Carrie & Lowell.” I’m also into Chad VanGaalen, Mac DeMarco, and Ty Segall.

Do you enjoy touring?
I love to tour. It’s a very exhausting yet rewarding experience. I love the fact that it forces you to be very present and only handle the day in front of you. I also like that it makes you really take care of your health. You end up treating your body like it’s a piece of gear that you have to maintain. There’s something so wonderful about being hyper-conscious of your well-being.

Do you find the time to enjoy the cities you’re in when you’re not performing?
One of the difficult parts is not having much time to explore because of scheduling. The saving grace about that, though, is that when you do get an hour to see something, you appreciate that much more. The other day we had time to go to Encinitas, Calif. on the way to L.A., and dip our feet in the Pacific. Last night we got to stay in a cabin on a peacock farm in Eugene, Ore. and wake up in the peaceful woods. You really savor moments like that!

“After” was also released on cassette. Is the physical product important to you? How do you feel about downloading, legally or otherwise?
I think physical formats are still important, because I am very thoughtful about the album art and layout and having the lyric booklet. I try not to get too upset about downloading because I realize that it’s where we are at right now, and being bitter about it won’t change anything. It makes me appreciate fans more for buying tickets to come to the show and picking up merch from me, because that kind of support makes it possible for me to continue to do what I love.

What do you miss when you’re on the road?
I miss my cat when I’m on the road. He’s like a little dog; he’s very hard to be away from!

Lady Lamb performs Wednesday, May 13 at 8 p.m. at The Press Room, 77 Daniel St., Portsmouth. Tickets are $13-15 and are available at pressroomnh.com

Top of page: Maine native Aly Spaltro, a.k.a. Lady Lamb. Photo by Shervin Lainez