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Pure art: Joanne Gabriel and the true meaning of success

When I think of pure art for art’s sake, one of the first people I think of is a young woman from France named Joanne Gabriel. I met her in the good old days of TheSixtyOne when fans and artists could actually get to know one another and become friends.

She is extraordinarily prolific. Some of what she produces are songs in the traditional sense. Others I would describe as flowing ambient soundscapes, full of texture, the kind of music that makes you feel and dream.

Many of her songs feature wordless vocals and she has a lovely voice. She isn’t trying to get famous, she’s just doing what feels right to her. She isn’t afraid to experiment and just play what comes naturally.

Joanne also puts out music under the name Caterwauler and makes “catcore” music featuring her cat Mojo. Mojo sounds scary and makes my little flowerdog growl 😉

I recently interviewed Joanne and learned some interesting things about her craft — and other things, like what a “belly name” is.

She has a ton of songs and albums available for free on Bandcamp. This is a good one, featuring a couple of my favorites — “So Be It” and “The Other Side.”

Artistic schizophrenia? 

MusicMissionary: Why do you release some songs as Joanne Gabriel and some songs as Caterwauler? Are you joined by other musicians as Caterwauler or is it for aesthetic reasons?

Joanne Gabriel: Artistic schizophrenia? For me the answer is not as simple as you could think. I took the artist name Joanne Gabriel when I started playing solo gigs. I felt I needed an artist name to help me playing the role of the-best-of-myself on stage, because I was shy and not very self-confident. Gabriel was my “belly name” : a kind of tradition in my family was to give the babies a name they would keep throughout the pregnancy time, until they were born and got their real name.

Everyone thought I was a boy, they called me Gabriel, teased me with this story when I was a kid, and I took the name back when I was older. Then I wrote my first songs and played them live. Soon the audience started to consistently make comparisons, and it was daunting. For instance they screamed “Hallelujah” for the curtain call. I’ve always found Jeff Buckley very impressive. They also called me Archangel Gabriel.

It was quite embarrassing and someday I felt I couldn’t take the responsibility for this comparison anymore and changed my name for Caterwauler. I also refocused on the kind of indie stuff I was performing in band before discovering improvisation. So maybe changing names increased my artistic schizophrenia. I was looking for my style and didn’t know how to handle the disparity of my tastes in my own music.

I guess at some point I was confused enough to split my songs into two categories as if I had two distinct styles or musical personalities. It took me some time to realize my work was a whole and that this way of doing things reflected deeper things than the will of splitting experimental and indie stuff into two different projects. It was all about self-confidence, accepting myself as an artist and accepting how people perceived me.

I took my Joanne Gabriel name back in 2009, released some of the many songs I had kept for myself until then on TheSixtyOne.com, and the feedback and support I got there helped me a lot to cure my schizophrenia. I even realized my experimental stuff tended to be more successful than the songs I was proud of/satisfied with…

So at the moment I think I’m done with the Caterwauler project, but who knows… I like aliases anyway, and borrowing names to attempt things I wouldn’t do otherwise.

MM: Are you joined by other musicians as Caterwauler or is it for aesthetic reasons?

JG: No, I’ve stopped working with other musicians (meaning as a band or on a regular basis) when my 7th drummer left the band some years ago.

Well, that’s not exactly how it happened but I was really bored of spending months working on a project then having to start from scratch again because one of the musicians left. So I decided to become self-sufficient, bought crap e-drums, and started recording my stuff on my own while pretending my skills on all instruments were high enough to do so. No aesthetic reasons, but with time I got to like this way of working, at least this avoids incomprehension and conflicts.

MM: I gather that at least at first, you did sort of use the two names Joanne Gabriel and Caterwauler to separate your music by style. My impression from a sampling your offerings on Bandcamp is that your Gabriel material is a bit more experimental and your Caterwauler stuff has more traditional song structures. Is that accurate?

JG: Yes, at least for the stuff I’ve released. The categorization is much less coherent in my private folders on my computer. Sometimes I had issues deciding what project a track belonged to, and in the end it happened more and more frequently. I’ve even released some of my tracks under one name then changed my mind later and put the song into an album released under the other name.

For instance “Opening all gates” was first released as a Caterwauler song. That’s why the video my friend Viktor Alexis made for it is still tagged Caterwauler, though the song is featured in a Joanne Gabriel album. It’s a quite experimental track. And I have tons of tracks I’ve never released that don’t clearly belong to a category.

All the Introspection albums for example : they are raw compositions, written like a diary or photographs of my everyday life, and I never meant to release them. So I don’t even know in what folder I should put them. There are 7 Introspection albums : sounds, structures and level of experimentation correspond to the mood I was in when I wrote the songs. Some album sessions lasted a few days or a few weeks, others a few months.

Most of the tracks I’ve released online belonged to a session before being gathered in an album. “Excerpts from the lost opuses” is a collection of the most successfully completed tracks of 7 or 8 sessions. The only albums that are the result of a dedicated session are “Almighty” and “The battle for the return of mirth and goodness” (the latter one has never been released).

Lately I’ve realized I tended to categorize my stuff not according to the structures or the genres but rather to the emotions. Some tracks, like “Won’t anyone save me” had a “Caterwauler structure” but a “Joanne Gabriel emotion.” Soon it became impossible to keep this logic when I put together an album. Now I almost always work according to themes or topics.

When a theme inspires me, I create a folder on my computer, give it a name that will become the title of the album, and when a track suits the theme in terms of emotion I put it in the folder. This way, I can open several sessions at the same time and work on several themes. It’s much more convenient and less confusing than releasing stuff under two names.

Here’s one from her alter-ego Caterwauler — there are quite a few of those as well:

Music: the language of emotion

MM: A lot of your music I would classify as “dark” as well as quite lovely. Does your music provide a kind of catharsis for those feelings? (It’s interesting because you come across as very cheerful in conversation.)

JG: Thanks. For me, making music and writing songs is a compulsive thing. There is a catharsis, but most times it’s not the purpose. The purpose is the feelings, the emotions. They’re like a second language, a universal language. Emotions and feelings are the same all over the world. Sound is a perfect vehicle for emotions.

To play their role as a language, touch the listeners and deliver their message, emotions have to be fully rendered. Therefore they have to be fully (and genuinely) felt. I’ve learnt not to conceal my feelings while performing music : on the contrary, I use them. In a way, music is the frame and emotions are the colours.

The wider the emotional range is, the more heartfelt the music is, the more chances you have to make contact with a listener. It happens when someone identifies something he has felt himself someday, or when the emotion is compelling enough to echo in someone’s heart. Transmitter to receiver ; you just have to be tuned on the same frequency.

Feeling low or depressed doesn’t prevent me from being inspired, and as lack of inspiration is the only thing that stops my compulsive writing, my tracks reflect my feelings. On a few occasions I’ve deliberately rekindled some dark feelings to arouse catharsis. Also, in order to be more convincing when writing with directions given by a collaborator, or for a film soundtrack.

I’ve sought catharsis with songs about nightmares and agoraphobia. But mostly, my tracks seize the moment.

Musical influences 

MM: Who are some of your biggest influences musically?

JG: Influences, hehe. I like that you specify “musically” There are tons of artists who influence me, and the way they influence me and the impact they have vary. I have “phases.”

To name a few I never grow tired of : Jeff Buckley, who’s been very important for the shaping of my vocal approach and also for my solo performances in gigs. Sunny Day Real Estate, Trail Of Dead, The Waterboys, Swervedriver, NIN, The Dead Can Dance, early Genesis, Simple Minds until “Street Fighting Years”…

Howard Shore’s soundtrack for The Lord Of The Rings also played a big role, and I regularly listen to U2 and Fear Factory. Otherwise I’m fond of gospel and negro spiritual, and Schubert’s Ave Maria always moves me.

These are the biggest ones but many unknown musicians and friends also deserve to be called influences at some point.

The true meaning of ‘success’

MM: Do you hope to someday earn a living from music so that you don’t have to have a day job?

JG: No

MM: What sort of success have you had getting your music out to the public?

JG: have no clue what sort of success I’ve had. I’m not even sure how to define success. Once I was playing a gig and there was this punk guy, pretty drunk and laughing all the time. It was an open-air concert, in the street, and it was probably the only reason that made him stay.

I started a song, and suddenly he stopped, began listening, and moved closer to the stage. His facial expression changed. The smile disappeared and I found myself looking him right in the eye. He was listening to my lyrics very carefully (he was probably the only native English speaker in the audience).

Then I could read “you’re crazy” on his lips while he was making the cuckoo sign. In this song I was addressing to all the persons I had loved in my life and who had died. Obviously it touched him more than he expected to. I finished my concert, talked with a few persons in the audience…

He was sitting on the floor and was crying. I left him alone (I had noticed he was drinking a lot during the concert and I guessed it added to his turmoil). But I saw him later, just before leaving.

He said : “Thank you, you’ve touched me. I’ve been moving from places to others for a very long time, I have no ties, but you made me feel like settling down. I was trying to escape but now I want to face the things that scare me. But I don’t know how to do it…”

I was really moved. I took his hand, and I told him : “Just do it, you’re strong enough to do it.” There was nothing else I could do or say. He was expecting this answer, he needed it, and at that moment I was the one who was supposed to deliver it. When I left he looked relieved.

I think that was the moment when I realized the importance of the messages an artist can send to his audience, and the responsibility he has. I never knew what happened to this guy after the gig but this encounter has left its mark on me.

When someone asks me a question about my “success,” the first things that come to my mind are this anecdote and a few others, like people coming to me after a performance, with tears in their eyes, saying “thank you” and vanishing in the crowd, or just hugging me.

I guess that’s what success is for me: being able to make contact with a listener so we understand each other and share something. Even if it seldom happens, with only a few persons, and lasts a very short time.

Soundtrack works

MM: I understand some of your music has been used in soundtracks?

JG: Yes. I first provided Viktor Alexis with songs he used in his films, then he introduced me to his friends Chicken Chris and Jean-David Izambard, and I worked with them. They are still regular collaborators : they “pay” me by making videos for my tracks from time to time. Most of the songs they featured were created before the films though.

So far the only soundtrack I specially wrote was for Chicken Chris’s short film Welt, a sci-fi fantasy tale. It was a great experience. I also recorded several tracks for Viktor Alexis’s adaptation of Le Horlà, but he kept only one for the actual soundtrack.

Lately, Annie Huntley featured a collaborative track with Softspace in videos aiming at increasing public awareness of endangered species, like the Orange-bellied parrots. Annie is studying a Masters of Natural History Film-Making, and she’s extremely committed to protecting wildlife in Australia. I’m delighted this could happen. Having my music featured in wildlife documentaries is an achievement, and the fact it’s endangered species means a lot to me.

Also, “Loin du regard” has been used in a very poignant short film by Will Sheridan, and Stéphane Piter asked me to cover Walking In The Air by Howard Blake for a fan project on Michael Mann’s film The Keep.

Studio vs. Live

MM: How often do you play live and how does your live music differ from what you produce in the studio?

JG: My last live performance was for a “Headphones Festival” in 2008. At the moment I don’t play live at all. When I was at my peak in term of frequency, I was playing live at least twice per month, at most four times. Regarding the difference between live music and what is produced in the studio, it totally depends on the kind of band or project I play in. I’ve played indie rock, punk, metal stuff with bands and it sounded pretty much like what was written in the first place.

But I’ve also performed a lot of solo gigs, and there was a large part of improvisation. So each time I played it was a different version of the produced songs. Most of the music I perform alone is improvisation based, even when I record. I change the patterns of my effects pedals all the time and never remind to note them down, so I never have exactly the same effects when I perform a song. And for some tracks, I don’t even define a structure before recording.

I already tended to record this way when I put together my very first tracks with a multitrack recorder. Later I attended an improvisation course in the Conservatoire of Nancy for one year, and it almost became a rule. If the improvisation fails and I’m not satisfied with the track, I simply put it aside and record another one. Now I’m digging a new way of performing live. I used to play with two looping pedals, build vocal and guitar loops in real time and play different versions of already existing songs or improvise new ones.

For the kind of stuff I’ve recorded lately, I would need more than two loopers and I still have to figure out how to bring in more instruments. I have to try a few things and see what I can handle.

FAWM = great way to kill writer’s block

MM: Could you tell me what FAWM is and why you participate in it? FAWM = February Album Writing Month. It’s a challenge where you have to write 14 songs in 28 days. The first time I participated was in 2008. It was only for the challenge.

I hadn’t recorded anything for a very long time and thought a deadline would help me. The same year I also participated in 50-90, 50 songs in 90 days. That’s a lot, but that’s what made me discover the concept of the “second wind”, which is the answer to the second part of your question.

To explain what I mean I will simply quote a blog post I’ve made after last FAWM:

“The second wind is one of the most pleasant and awesome things I’ve experienced throughout my creative course.I would take part in this kind of challenges only to get the second wind. Many musicians are skeptical about the validity of events like FAWM where you have to force creativity and, on top of that, have a deadline.

“For my part I love the process, because you have to let loose. When I start a FAWM my aim is not to write 14 good songs ; it’s to write songs, even crap songs, so as to put aside all the things that block my inspiration.

“When at last I manage to get rid of all the useless considerations, like ‘is there a better way to play this?’, ‘should I really submit a song that shows how poor my drumming skills are?’ and so on; when I stop spending hours on a song I don’t like because I have no clue how to make it sound better, and when I give up trying to force myself to write songs that are “different” and don’t sound like me; then comes the second wind: inspiration is here, near at hand, simple and natural, the songs flow because somehow the lesson has been learned and the way I should work is accepted.”

Mojo and the Catcore revolution 

MM: Hey you know what? I just realized I’m not done with the interview. You have to tell me about Mojo the Cat.

JG: Haha, Mojo the Cat! Indeed it was missing. Here’s my attempt to answer but I confess it’s really tough to explain, especially in English (I still have issues explaining it in my native language).

Well, as you may guess he’s my cat. I got him and his brother Prâna when they were only one month old, and I had to replace their mother (Mojo couldn’t feed by himself).

They grew up with instruments all around them and were accustomed to music. I had this bad habit : I never cut my guitar strings ends, and at some point Prâna used to spend 20 minutes a day “playing the guitar” ; he seized a string end with his claws, held it with his teeth and released it so it would hit the other strings above the nut and produce a tinkling. He also “sang” while I was playing the guitar, and looked pretty inspired when the song used a D chord. At that time I found this funny, I recorded him but never went further. Mojo wasn’t interested in the guitar and didn’t sing at all.

It all began after I lost Prâna a few years ago. I used a sample of Mojo’s babbling in a Caterwauler song then played it to him. I didn’t really pay attention to his reaction, but soon after he started pestering me each time I was recording vocals. He whined, pulled at my trousers, and stopped only when I gave up.

I thought he hated my voice (quite appalling). One day during FAWM 2009 (my second one), I was chatting with my FAWM friend Kevin Reid and we were exchanging old songs. I sent him a few cat samples and he asked me if he could use one. I said “yes of course, but you have to credit Mojo on FAWM.”

On the site you can credit a collaborator and link to his profile. I created a profile for Mojo The Cat, at first with no other purpose than the joke, but soon the idea grew on my mind. I recorded a short track, trying to be as feline as possible in my approach, looped some babbling and pasted them in it. That was the first Mojo song.

Comments poured on the site, they were hilarious and I took a liking to the joke. I completed the challenge with over 14 “catcore” tracks. Only Kevin knew I was behind the profile until I released a collaborative track between me and Mojo at the end of the month. “I would trade all my catnip for chicken wings” was a very important track, it changed the whole project into something serious because it was the first time Mojo took part willingly… and live.

He had spent the whole month listening to the tracks I was producing with his babbling, enjoyed listening and stayed close to me the whole time, providing me with more meows, purring that I immediately used in new tracks… So in the end I really paid attention to everything he did while I was putting together the tracks, trying to guess if he liked them or not, putting him on the keyboards to get nice cat solos or presenting him the mic with the hope of being able to record him in real time.

I guess the process of hearing his voice in different musical structures excited his interest. He’s very smart and he also loves playing to the gallery. The catnip song opened a door for us. I found his reaction intriguing and wanted to see more. He obviously understood the process of recording, the purpose of microphones and loved listening to himself.

After FAWM 2009, the project largely evolved, turning into a real experiment on the one hand, and a completely new artistic approach on the other hand.

During the treatment of Mojo’s voice in songs, I realized a cat’s voice suits music perfectly : it is deep and warm, strange and beautiful, especially when some reverb or delay effects are applied to it. Also, a collaboration with an individual who hasn’t got the same language as me, the same capacities as me, but who can get involved in an activity so that we share something and have fun together is an amazing thing to do.

Moreover we both learn and acquire, be it techniques or behaviours. When he hears himself he winks (it’s one of the things he does when he’s happy), and sometimes he sings while a track is playing. I sing the catnip song for him from time to time, a capella, and he answers me like in the original recording. It’s stunning. During FAWM 2010 Mojo forced me to “lend” him several songs that didn’t belonged to his project and recorded vocals for alternate versions. In FAWM 2011 he hacked one of my songs by singing live on it during the recording.

These are some of the many reasons that turned the Mojo project into a big thing, but there are others. On FAWM several persons copied the process and posted catcore tracks featuring their cats.

The feedback we got there was very interesting, as people reported they played Mojo’s songs to their pets.. They also said that their cats were either conquered, either scared, but all appeared to be responsive to Mojo’s music. Besides, Mojo’s new brother Mantra often tries to copy his brother and to reproduce the same meows when he hears one of his songs. Maybe it’s a new form of music for pets? I’m still experimenting from this point of view.

At the moment I’m trying to adapt the project to the gained capacity to record Mojo live instead of looping samples, and to his tastes. I seriously think about shooting videos to witness his behaviour.

Since I recorded his first own tracks he completely stopped pestering me when I record vocals. Sometimes he claims the mic (and I seize the opportunity) but he usually leaves me alone when I work outside his project style, unless he really likes the song and feels like contributing.

The way I feel towards him and the music I make for him is a little strange: I feel like I’m a kind of tool, an extension for his creativity. I perform what he can’t perform by himself due to physical incapacity, assuming he would perform this kind of things if he could. Musically, he’s not responsive to everything. He enjoys experimental stuff and loves indie tunes with coloured harmonies. Otherwise it depends on his mood. I could define him as a punk-hipster cat, though he’s very wise in the everyday life and looks more like an Aristocat.

Most probably he’s a genius on the cats scale, the kind who opens doors, vanishes when he hears us calling the vet, can count (as long as it’s the number of chicken wings he is allowed to eat) and even knows a few words (french equivalents of “mum”, “no”, “yes”, “lamb”, “up”, “meat” and “I love you”). When my mother calls me he rushes in the room as soon as he hears the ringing. She always asks to speak to him and he purrs in the speaker and rubs against the phone. Animals can be very intelligent, you can teach them a lot of things and if you pay attention you can develop their creativity as well.

The last thing I will say about this project is an anecdote that moved me a lot. During last FAWM, I got this message on my wall from a fellow fawmer, Max: “You know what, Foppe (copycat) left the house December 1st on a freezing cold day and never returned. 13 years old, always on my lap and we don’t know what happened. I’m so happy I did that track last year with him, it means a lot to me now. Without you and Mojo I would only have the pictures of our dear family member, now I’ve got a song with him. Thank you for that.”

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Japanese music has really come of age

Like many Americans I am fascinated by Japanese culture. Of course I appreciate the deeply traditional parts of their culture — gardens, calligraphy, geishas, sushi, martial arts. But what I really love is Japanese pop culture.

Just about every generation of Americans alive today has sentimental attachment to some aspect of it. Godzilla, Gamera, ninjas, anime, Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh cards, the characters of Japanese video games.

And karaoke. It used to be something crazy Japanese businessmen did after work. Now it’s as American as apple pie. Most don’t even realize it’s a Japanese word. I love the way the Japanese take what they like from American culture — rock ‘n’ roll for example — and put their own special twist on it. I have some established favorites among Japanese musicians, like Ryuichi Sakamoto (of Yellow Magic Orchestra) and Cornelius (Keigo Oyamada). I’ve also picked up a few new favorites.

Since the very day I started this blog I have been planning to talk about some of my favorite Japanese musicians, but I put it off because I wanted to get it right. Then came the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami and I thought, “Oh crap, I wonder if we just just lost some of them?” With as many people as they lost — 10,000 dead and 17,000 missing last time I checked — it’s possible, although I don’t know of any musicians who didn’t make it. A couple of my recently-discovered favorites dropped out of touch for a while, but I’ve since gotten hold of them and found out they are OK.

Cellz Cellar

Mitsugu Suzuki, who performs under the name Cellz Cellar, creates some of the most moving music I’ve heard in a long time.  His styles include inspired ambient, shoegaze and electronica. Most of his music is instrumental, but he also works with singers. He is an admirer of Western music and shows incredible taste based on the  covers he chooses (Bjork’s  “Army of Me” and Radiohead’s “Nude”). I made friends with him and became a huge fan back when I was active on TheSixtyOne. He’s also the Japanese musician I was especially worried about — he lives in Kanagawa, which was hit by the tsunami, though it wasn’t as severely damaged as other cities. I was relieved when I finally got hold of him and he told me he was all right.

My favorite Cellz Cellar song so far is Epiphillum, featuring vocals from Shuichi Mizohata:

Pendulum is another beauty:

You can stream more songs from his album 444 on his MySpace page. You can also purchase digital files of his work through 7digital.com.

Chiharu MK


I discovered this young lady while digging deep in TheSixtyOne. She’s an amazing pianist who performs what I would call modern classical music. She describes herself as a sound artist/music composer/pianist and visual artist.

In addition to piano, she makes music with electronics and sound installation. She reminds me a bit of Ryuichi Sakamoto and in fact, she has had some of her music featured on his radio show in Japan. So far she has put out an EP called Piano Prizm and a full-length album called Waterproof. She used hydrophone for Waterproof, creating an underwater piano sound. I REALLY like the title track from that album.

Here she is performing music for an art exhibit about snow sculpture called “White Noise/Snow Division”

All the songs from Piano Prizm and Waterproof are available on Itunes.

You can find more about her here.


Ichiko Hashimoto – RahXephon soundtrack
I have to admit I don’t really “get” anime – maybe I didn’t try hard enough, but the anime movies I’ve seen so far sorta left me flat – so I might have overlooked this music if not for a user on Rate Your Music. Hashimoto’s songs cover a wide range of styles – acid jazz, pop, classical, trip hop, and various fusions of the above. Some of the songs have a spacey, mysterious ambience that reminds me of Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes. I can’t seem to get enough of them. One of the songs, “Yume no Tamago” is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. I found an English version, but I prefer the Japanese by far:

Clammbon 

I’ve known about these guys for several years, but I still love them. They play a kind of jazzy pop, very piano driven, most of it upbeat. They remind me of Ben Folds Five in their style. They have a ton of videos up on YouTube. I found them because I decided to look up the girl who sang on “Mars” by Towa Tei. Her name is Harada Ikuko. She has a nice voice and is a pretty good keyboard player as well. Their official website is in Japanese, and I can’t read it, but there is an English fan site, http://clammbon.metalbat.com, with a lot of information about the band — including the fact that they made it through the earthquake and tsunami OK. The site also has a page with several links showing how to buy Clammbon’s material outside Japan.

This is “Chicago,” one of my favorite songs from the group:

And last but definitely not least, it has been over a month since the earthquake and tsunami, but Japan still has a lot of people who need help. Here is a list of reputable organizations you can donate to if you would like to contribute.

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Help Japan and download some cool electronic music

Just found out Electro-freaks, a group of electronic artists and fans who originated on TheSixtyOne is still going outside the website and has put together a downloadable album to benefit the victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. They already raised $1,500 after about a week. If that kind of music turns your motor, or you’d just like to chip in, visit www.electrofreakspresent.com.

The fundraiser should run for about another week, so get your copy of EFP Vol. 3  soon.

I’m told the album will be available after the fundraiser. Still, why wait?

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Pickering Pick’s tuneful English folk is a Sparkling Thing

Singer-songwriter Pickering Pick

Singer-songwriter Sam Pickering Pick is a man after my own heart — a man in love with words, words sung and words written. Setting his words to music, he paints beautiful pictures and tugs at the heartstrings. I also love his sense of melody and his guitar work. Low key and humble as he is, I think he has huge potential among folk music fans and beyond.

Originally from England, he has been living in the United States for eight years and now makes his home in Sacramento, California. Though his singing accent is a bit soft, he notes that his “speaking voice is just as English as ever.”

Sam has made nine albums to date, plus two EPs. His latest, The Boy in the Back, was just released this year. He is in the process of remastering his other albums in his home studio.

Though I find his guitar work quite beautiful, Sam doesn’t consider himself a hot shot musician. Lyrics are his main focus. “I played guitar and a bit of piano growing up, neither one particularly well, I might add. I’m really not a ‘good musician,’ and I’m just lucky to have long fingers and a sense of rhythm, so that fingerpicking a folk guitar is relatively easy for me. I have always been much more about the words than the music, so Paul Simon and obviously Dylan had huge appeal for me.”

I recently asked Sam what he thought of British singer-songwriter Donovan since I get a bit of a Donovan vibe off his music.

“You know, Donovan is an interesting one,” he said. “A couple of his songs are spectacular, but often I think he’s a bit too sweet for my taste. His fingerpicking is lovely, though. I love that scene in Don’t Look Back where he’s playing in a room of Dylan groupies and Dylan is just really mean to him, but Donovan plays much better. I think the English folk singer I most identify with is probably Cat Stevens [aka Yusuf Islam].” He is also a big fan of English folk singer Richard Thompson.

Sam recently turned 32. He grew up in a town in England called Cheltenham “in the Cotswolds, in the south-west Midlands.” He describes Cheltenham as a “posh town with posh schools, but lots of problems”

Sam himself did not grow up in a posh family, but his father is a notable figure in the music world. David Pickering Pick is a record producer and serial studio-builder who built studios from the ’70s up to the present. Musicians recording in David’s studio include Luther Grosvenor from Mott The Hoople, The Vigilantes of Love, Decameron and Bill Mallonee. “I think Judi Dench was there the other day doing some voice work. Anyway, a lot of English folk royalty over the years…” His studio company is FFG Recording.

“I grew up in Cheltenham, went to school, listened to all my dad’s old folk records from the mid- ’60s through the early ’70s — he gave me a whole stack when I was about 11 or 12,” Sam said. While his friends were listening to Guns ‘n’ Roses, Sam notes, “I grew up on James Taylor, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan. Later on, there was Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Incredible String Band, etc., but earlier on it was the American folk singers I adored.”

After leaving school, Sam went to London to study architectural history. “Around that time, my first year, I wrote the songs for The Attic Tapes, and recorded them with my dad producing at his studio,” he said.

Sam moved to the U.S. in 2002 after meeting an American girl in London as a 20-year old. He and his wife married in 2000 and recently celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary. They have two children, a 7-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl. He has been a stay-at-home father since their son was born.

Sam’s sister Sera recently made some very nice videos of him singing in his home studio. “Sparkling Thing” may be my favorite from the new album:

I’ve always loved “Unseen Hook” as well:



Visit Sera’s Youtube channel to see the rest.

Below are some of the topics Sam and I covered during a recent interview, including RateYourMusic, Bandcamp, TheSixtyOne, LastFM, and his dream of becoming a published novelist.

RateYourMusic

I discovered Sam on RateYourMusic, an amazing website that has grown into a thriving community with a very impressive database of albums and artists. Like me, he was one of the early members of that site back in 2002. I beat him there by just a few months.

“It was a tiny website back then,” he said. “It’s amazing. I’m so happy to see it turning into the resource it has become – one of only a tiny handful of extraordinary truly social media.”

MM: “Me too. [Site owner and creator] Sharifi is such an amazingly awesome guy. Sort of Zuckerberg’s good twin.”

Sam: “I owe him a HUGE amount. Seriously, w/o Sharifi and RYM, I wouldn’t have recorded all the albums I did. And I wouldn’t have reached the people I have reached.”

MM: “I certainly wouldn’t know about you. Or about tons and tons of my favorite music.”

Sam: “He’s on top of my Christmas card list for sure. RYM pretty much changed my life musically.”

MM: “How so? Just by giving you a venue and some networking?”

Sam: “Well, let me see… First of all, it opened up my eyes and ears to a whole world of music I wouldn’t have discovered, which influenced and changed me as a musician. Then, importantly, it provided a platform for me to experiment with listeners. I had played live in London for a while before moving to California, but I never had the feedback I got from RYM. Then, of course, the viral nature of a social website like RYM made distribution of my music very easy in way I had never imagined… I mean, RYM was not conceived as a venue for unsigned/under-the-radar musicians to upload their music, right?”

MM: “From my understanding it was an experiment, to create a database others would contribute to. That part definitely works.”

Sam: “But with the help of [RYM users] Matti, Kevvy, Jon Bohan and a few others, and tremendous support from many more, I was able to use the site as a personal musical forum.”

MM: “It’s an amazing database at this point.”

Sam: “Probably the only one of its kind – almost too complete! Lots of very anal music fans with too much time on their hands… I used to think I was a music geek, but now I know otherwise.”

MM: “There are levels of geek.”

Sam: “I am low-level for sure.”

Aspiring writer

Growing up with a music producer for a father had a big impact on Sam, but he has another passion: writing.

“Music was everywhere when I was growing up. Musicians of all kinds in and out of the house. I used to sit and watch the sessions from time to time, but I don’t remember ever thinking I wanted to be a musician. By the time I was in my mid-teens, I wanted to be a writer and that has never gone away.”

He has written two novels and would love to become a published novelist, but notes, “music is just as much a love of mine.

“You know, writing is just enormously satisfying. The writing process — I get a huge kick out of it. I finished the last novel this summer, right before i started working on The Boy in the Back and when I was done, I felt bereft.”

His novels cover a variety of subjects, including wasted youth, anxiety, sexual tension and murder. His last book was a comedy, which he refers to as “fluffy teen fiction, like Gossip Girl.” He pitched it to some agencies but didn’t have any takers. “I used to work in book publishing, so I know how it works. New authors never get a look-in. Only established names. You have to know someone or be someone.” But he notes, “people will continue to seek out good writing.”

He has toyed with the idea of giving his books away through digital downloads, the way he does his music. “There’s a way it could work. For the Kindle generation.”

Bandcamp

Like other indie musicians I’ve spoken with, Sam is a big fan of Bandcamp.com, which lets unsigned artists stream, give away and sell their music. “I never made anything from my music until I put the albums up on Bandcamp,” he said.

In fact, during our interview, he interjected, “Cool! Someone just bought an album on Bandcamp! While we were chatting. What a coincidence…”

Sam still thinks the website could be better: “It is really cool — but it isn’t perfect. It’s not a cohesive site. There’s no ‘web.’ It’s like a stack of pages, but no cross-references. So one artist is pretty much isolated from all the others and there’s nowhere for fans to comment on artist pages.”

MM: “Yeah, I’ve noticed that. It’s like each artist has an independent website, which is cool in a way, but not very lively for the music explorer.”

Sam: “Exactly exactly exactly. Great for me as an artist, not as a consumer.”

But speaking as a blogger, Bandcamp is pretty doggone convenient as it lets me embed songs and albums like so:

 

Live performances

Sam isn’t currently doing live performances, but doesn’t rule them out in the future. He is a bit stage-shy, but while in London he performed in some important folk venues. “I even played the 12-Bar on Denmark Street one time, probably my most prestigious performance,” he said. “It was nerve-wracking but well-received.” He explained that Denmark Street is “pretty much the epicentre of folk music in London and the UK, and the 12-Bar is the focal point — a live folk club for acoustic artists.”

He finished building a proper home recording studio last year and wants to get comfortable in it. “I am not opposed to playing live, but having been away from the live scene for so long, it is hard to know how to get back into it again,” he said. “I’m not keen on open mic, but i do appreciate that listeners want to see their favourite artists playing ‘in the flesh.'”

TheSixtyOne

I’m the one who talked Sam into joining TheSixtyOne.com. I was gratified to see how quickly he formed a bond with other folk musicians and found his audience. I was a little embarrassed later on, when the site changed into its current artist-unfriendly format, stripping away all those social networking tools. I’m relieved to find that he still thinks his time at T61 was well-spent. His songs are still on the site, though he isn’t seeing much activity there.

Sam: “T61… well… You introduced me to it and I was very excited at first.”

MM: “Yeah. I was trying to win a quest. The Evangelist or something. Plus I thought highly of your music and I thought you would do well there — and you did.”

Sam: “I had had a long hiatus from writing and recording, but something kind of clicked and I was excited about writing again. That was amazing — to be able to be involved in the process, watching people respond to my songs. It was very addictive.”

MM: “It was quite a supportive environment wasn’t it?”

Sam: “The charts, and the front page, etc., the comments I received were encouraging.”

MM: “Yeah. your fans rooting for you, trying to get you on the home page, helping you strategize.”

Sam: “And then, boom. It just ended.”

MM: “Your songs are still up right?”

Sam: “I guess — I never go there any more. Wouldn’t know how to get rid of them.”

MM: “I would leave them. The more places, the better.”

Sam: “I don’t disagree.”

LastFM

Sam also enjoys the popular music website Last.fm, which gives him valuable exposure as a musician. “I have a good relationship with Last.fm,” he said. “They’re good people.” He admits the site isn’t perfect, but is still a fan.

MM: “They’ve got issues too. That duplicate artist thing is a mess and a half.”

Sam: “Oh, yeah, that’s true. There were a couple of Pickering Picks last time I checked… One’s a Sam Pickering Pick I guess. But the communities and groups are cool.”

Speaking of which… A quick Internet search will come up with quite a few Pickering Picks.

Sam: “Ha ha. There are a few notable Pickering Picks. Thomas Pickering Pick is probably the biggest. My family were all famous surgeons. Surgeons to the royal family, etc.” (Gray’s Anatomy was co-written and edited by Thomas.)

With a bit of luck and perseverance, I’m betting that one day, Sam Pickering Pick the musician will be the first Pickering Pick folks think of when they look up his family.

Check out Sam’s website, listen to some of his songs and maybe send a little love his way. I think he deserves a few bucks at the very least for the musical gift he’s given us.

http://pickeringpick.com/

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Social Networks: Good? Evil? Probably neither.

I don’t like it, but it’s undeniable: Sometimes the best, most important things come from total assholes. Knowing that fact doesn’t make the assholes’ accomplishments any less important. I’ve always known that, but watching The Social Network really brought it home for me. I realize the movie was a fictionalized account of Mark Zuckerberg and the other co-founders of Facebook, but I can’t help but believe it captured something of his character, or lack thereof.

I also think he must be a visionary as well as extremely ambitious. He did what he had to do, no matter who he had to screw over. And if he hadn’t, we might not have Facebook. You could argue that the world would be better off. I personally avoided drinking the Facebook Koolaid for as long as possible. I didn’t necessarily want tons of people — even friends and relatives — knowing all my details all the time. I had privacy concerns. Still do.

But just when I had decided Facebook was a fad that I wanted no part of, TheSixtyOne (another remarkable website started by brilliant guys who turned out to be assholes) changed from an innovative music site with a vibrant community into a glorified web radio where artists and listeners could no longer communicate. Friends were suddenly cut off from one another as site owners James Miao and Sam Hsiung made a radical redesign with little regard for the artists and listeners, in exchange for investment capital. (I think it was also a disastrous business decision, but time will tell.) When that happened, Facebook became our lifeline, the best way to get back in touch with one another.

And at the moment it looks like the old T61 community still exists, waiting for another virtual homeland to come along and fill those needs for friendship and music discovery. Kind of ironic that the refuge is Facebook, a website started by a guy who might make T61s founders look like sweethearts by comparison.

But a good idea is a good idea, wherever it comes from. I guess in the end, sites like Facebook and T61 aren’t good or bad. They’re morally neutral. Like the Internet itself. I hate some of the changes the Internet has given us, but I don’t think I would want to go back to the way it was before.

Here are a couple of posts I wrote about T61 right around the time of the big site change, just in case you’re new to my blog or you’re feeling nostalgic:

Lessons we learned from T61 (that the owners did not)

T61′s redesign – from DABDA to hope

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The Widest Smiling Faces interview — melancholy and optimism coexist



How does an indie musician become successful? I wish I knew. But I am sure of one thing, there isn’t any magic person or company or website out there who will make it happen. You have to do it yourself. New York-based singer-songwriter Aviv Cohn aka The Widest Smiling Faces is just 23, but he’s already got that figured out.

When I first encountered him on TheSixtyOne, he had uploaded “The Only Lonely Ocean,” a song full of shoegaze echoes and alliteration that I knew was destined to be a hit on the site. And sure enough, the song caught on and burned up the charts. I really admired the way he developed his networking skills, making friends, picking up tips and promoting his music far and wide.

Aviv is a largely self-taught guitar player. He had lessons, but mainly used them as a chance to show off his compositions. “I took guitar lessons when I was younger but I never really followed the lesson plan and would go to the lessons to show off my songs,” he told me in a recent interview. “I think though that that was a good fire starter for me, because it encouraged me to get in the habit of regularly composing so I had something new to show each time. But most of my playing style I developed myself I would say.”

Aviv plays regularly in New York City. “It’s been good,” he said. “I’ve played at a lot of good venues like Mercury Lounge, the Knitting Factory, The Bitter End. I had residency at The Beauty Bar in Brooklyn a few months ago.”

He has one album under his belt, The Widest Smiling Faces, which features the song, “The Only Lonely Ocean.” You can download it for free or get a physical copy for $5 via Bandcamp. A second album is in the works, and he is building a website.

As much as I liked the way Aviv handled networking on T61, I had even more respect for the way he handled the demise of the old, community-friendly gaming version of in favor of the new slick version that doesn’t seem to be much use to anyone. While most of the T61 stalwarts (including me) were getting angry and depressed, he took it in stride and simply moved on, found new ways to promote himself. I thought the pic he uploaded to Facebook around that time summed up his attitude pretty well:

A couple of weeks ago, I had a nice little chat with Aviv in Facebook messenger that turned into an interview. I learned a lot about him and we got into some very interesting topics.

First the basics: Aviv grew up in Long Beach, New York, and went to College at Suny Purchase. He got a BA in Media, Science and the Arts. Sounds like a pretty good degree for a practicing musician on practical grounds, but he picked the major for intellectual reasons: “I decided to study Media, Society and the Arts because I felt it would give me more insight into the way art interacts with society.”

The Widest Smiling Faces is essentially Aviv’s project, although he has had some help along the way. “At times it’s had other members; all my recordings have been solo, and for the most part it’s been solo but occasionally I have performed with other people under the umbrella of the Widest Smiling Faces. But for right now it continues to be solo.”

What’s in a name?

MusicMissionary: “How did you come up with the name, Widest Smiling Faces?”

Aviv: “Hmm, thats a bit complicated. I got the name from my head, it just came in there one day, and I thought it sounded good and felt right, is the simple answer.”

MM: “What’s the more complicated version? Now you got me curious.”

A: “I started playing music at around the same time my face started twisting. I used to have a cute smile but I can’t smile the way I used to. All the good feelings from my normal smile left my mouth and went to my fingers when I started playing, so that’s why the music is the Widest Smiling Faces.”

The melancholy smile

MM: “If i had any genre that your music reminds me of it would be shoegaze. Shoegaze is most often associated with melancholy. Yet your stage name and emphasis is on happiness.”

A: “Yeah, you’re right, my music is probably more melancholy than happy though. I think melancholy is one of the best words in the English language as well.”

MM: “Me too, come to think of it. Feels good on the tongue. So is there a kind of irony to your stage name that you enjoy? And melancholy… it is a bit more complex than ‘sadness.’ It can be kind of pleasant, right?”

A: “Well, I think a smile can be melancholy as well.”

Musical influences

MM: “Who are your big influences, favorite bands?”

A: “I really like Sigur Ros and Boards of Canada. I like Radiohead a lot. Neutral Milk Hotel, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Beatles, Nirvana, The Beach Boys…”

MM: “What about Slowdive or My Bloody Valentine?”

A: “I really like the song ‘The Sadman’ by Slowdive.”

MM: “Jesus and Mary Chain…”

A: “That connected with me.”

MM: “Still it doesn’t sound like shoegaze bands are your biggest touchstone. or am I wrong?”

A: “I would say they aren’t my biggest touchstone.”

MM: “I can definitely hear Beatles and Beach Boys. Is there a certain feeling or sound that you go for when you perform live or record? Atmospheric, reverb, etc.?”

A: “Well I guess it depends on the song. I’m usually going for more of an image or a set of images.”

The Only Lonely Ocean: The Storybook

Speaking of images, one of the most interesting Widest Smiling Faces projects was Aviv’s collaboration with artist Daniel Spenser. If you’re a fan of the satirical website, The Onion, you may have seen his artwork. He is also the artist who designed the cover for The Widest Smiling Faces album. That eye-catching, professional-looking cover was one reason Aviv did so well on T61.

Aviv let Daniel hear his music and come up with artwork based on his impressions. The art was fashioned into a book featuring Aviv’s lyrics for “The Only Lonely Ocean.” “He’s an incredibly talented artist and I’m really fortunate to be able to work with him,” Aviv said.

You can see more of Daniel’s artwork here: http://www.danielspenser.com

Marketing and the Internet

MM: “So… We talked last time about your inspirations, etc. Now how about the marketing and business aspects? For example, would you consider yourself an ambitious artist? Do you expect to make a good living from music someday?”

A: “The music industry keeps changing so I don’t really know what to expect. Right now I’m trying to get my music out there as best as I can.”

MM: “How do you view the Internet as a way to promote yourself? Advantages, pitfalls?”

A: “I think it’s an incredible tool, and there’s no question it’s revolutionized music. I think it’s had more of an effect on music than on any other art form. With regards to advantages/pitfalls, I think it’s helped artists spread their music, while at the same time, perhaps made it harder to make the same kind of living.”

MM: “More positive or more negative? Downloading has impacted a lot of artists’ income don’t you think?”

A: “More positive. People are exposed to more music than ever before, more genres as bleeding into each other.”

MM: “What ways have you found on the Internet to promote your music? What has worked well and what hasn’t? And what kind of lessons have you learned so far?”

A: “I think the best way is to realize you’re dealing with humans and not numbers, and to be as real and genuine as you can with people.”

MM: “I discovered you on T61. Was that the first sort of social networking/venue site you used?”

A: “I think MySpace was the first. MySpace isn’t what it once was but I think it’s still useful.”

MM: “So… what would you say are your most useful tools on the Internet right now?”

A: “Myself.”

MM: “Meaning that no magical site out there will make you succeed, you have to do it yourself?”

A: “Yeah, and I think music is the most important thing as well.”

MM: “I thought you did quite a good job harnessing T61 in its old format. What lessons did you learn from operating in that environment? And what lessons from when the site owners made the big change? Are you still getting good use out of it?”

A: “I haven’t used TheSixtyOne in a while, I would love to go back to it but I feel like all my fans have left (maybe that’s not true though). They sent me an e-mail a litle while ago on myspace asking for high res photos, which I updated, but I heard from them since really. And they updated one of my songs with artwork from the storybook themselves, which I thought was a nice touch.”

MM: “What all are you using right now?”

A: “I’m really liking Bandcamp. It’s clean, it sounds good, people like it.”

MM: “I can tell you I like it because it’s easy to embed songs. which for you means the music can go viral more easily.”

A: “Yeah, that’s one of its best features I would say.”

Check out The Widest Smiling Faces’ music on Bandcamp: 

And get to know Aviv on Facebook and Myspace.

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Bandcamp begins charging artists for free downloads

Looks like another installment in the continuing story of “No Free Lunch” on the Internet. I don’t think it affects listeners, but Bandcamp is trying to get musicians who give away all their music for free to start selling. Evidently, the site wasn’t getting enough money from its cut of purchased music to pay for the streaming and upkeep of the site, since most of the downloads turned out to be from artists who were giving everything away. Nothing to take a cut from. Now musicians have a limited amount of songs they can give away. After that they have to pay.

300 downloads for $9 USD (3¢ each)
1000 downloads for $20 USD (2¢ each)
5000 downloads for $75 USD (1.5¢ each)

If they sell $500 worth of songs, they get 1,000 added to their free download allotment.

Here’s Bandcamp’s explanation.

As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t change anything. I still like Bandcamp because it’s easy to embed in places like this blog, which in turn gives a lot of value to the musician because it’s easier to get spread around and potentially go viral. I can see where it might cause problems for a struggling musician though. How do you sell music when no one knows who you are yet?

I’ve heard from a couple of indie artists about it and one, The Venopian Solitude, whose music I reviewed in March, is unhappy (Here’s her take on it). She wants to give her songs away and not have to bother about money. Although in my opinion, her songs are already beyond the point where she ought to be selling them. She just keeps getting better and better. She’s looking for a free place to host her songs though, other than Reverbnation, which her school blocks, so if anyone’s got ideas, send ’em her way.

Aviv Cohn aka The Widest Smiling Faces basically took it in stride. He gets good value out of Bandcamp and said, “Yeah, it sucks, but it seems fair.” Obviously the service has to be paid somehow.

That’s the reality of the Internet that we keep having to face. Startup services might do cool things that attract a lot of users, but don’t actually pay for themselves. Maybe they have to do so to satisfy investors, or they at least have to break even. They might make drastic changes and basically sell out, the way TheSixtyOne did in my opinion. Or they can do like Pandora and basically pull a bait & switch on us, pretend to be free till they get us hooked, and then spring a surprise cost on us. I don’t think Bandcamp has done either of those things yet. Hopefully they won’t have to.

It’s a huge dilemma for us users and for the startups. There’s a ton of free content on the Internet, some of it amazing and very useful. But when the bills come due, they tend to go away. Either they make changes like I mentioned, or they just get exhausted and let their sites go dead. On the other hand, when they try to start charging for things, some other site is liable to spring up and start giving the same stuff away again.

It’ll be interesting to see how things shake out. Despite the piss poor economy, people still want to make and listen to music. The demand is there. If only we could figure out how all our broke asses can still eat and pay the rent. No answers here, unfortunately. Only questions.

P.S. I recently did an exensive interview with the Widest Smiling Faces which I will put on this blog as soon as I get a chance to edit. Stay tuned…

Note: Jennifer from Bandcamp just replied to this post, saying, “Just wanted to be sure you saw the update on our site – we took the suggestion from several artists to refresh free download credits every month, which seems to work for most bands who give their music for free on Bandcamp.” She also left a link explaining the policy in detail. (see below in comments)

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