Robert Schwartzman Article

Robert Schwartzman

“The Music Man”

By Emily J Ramey

Written for BMI: MusicWorld

Robert Schwartzman is a man refreshingly fanatical about the art of making music. Despite, or perhaps as a result of, having seen rapid success with his California retro rock band Rooney, the 28-year-old singer/songwriter is absolutely bursting with new ideas, projects, and overall zeal for the industry, which is more than evident in the way he talks about his songwriting process: “I get excited by chords; I get excited by melody; I get excited by lyrics… something has to spark excitement, and you just run with it. It’s a domino effect either way, but the process is specific to whatever’s occurring in that moment.”

“Learning by ear inspired me to start writing music, taking feelings and stories from my life and turning them into a song,” he explains of his early penchant for songwriting. “It was the thrill of having something in my hands that didn’t exist before.”

As for influences, Robert cites “oldies but goodies” as his inspiration, then and now. “You know late fifties, early sixties, cruising with your friends with the top down and milkshakes,” he says. “I’ve always thought – and still do – that that music is really simple and so… right; the innocence of that music has always inspired me.”

These threads are discernible in Rooney’s distinctive flashy guitars, chunky rhythms, and summery melodies, but Schwartzman, ever the opportunist, is on the verge of expanding his repertoire with a solo venture as well. “The band has been a big part of my life and it’s important to me, but there’s still a need to be able to take chances and try other things. I played all the instruments, they’re all my songs; on every level, it’s my record.”

Schwartzman’s debut will be released this fall, with plans for a tour following closely behind. After all, the live show is what it’s all about, Robert claims. “I like the feeling of playing music to people. Playing a live show sort of helped me understand how people are affected by music. When you perform something, you feel it in a different way; you feel like you’re putting it all on the line.”

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Paul McDonald Article

Paul McDonald

Idol‘s Lone Songwriter”

By Emily J Ramey

Written for BMI: MusicWorld

Paul McDonald draws musical inspiration from his life, which, if you’re up on your pop culture you’ll know, has been positively brimming with spectacular, whirlwind song material. The 26-year-old singer/songwriter placed eighth on season ten of American Idol, met, dated, and got engaged to Twilight starlet Nikki Reed, and toured the country, playing arenas, as part of the Idol tour… all within the first eight months of 2011.

This sort of dizzying fate is new to all American Idol contestants; however, unlike his bright-eyed, freshly scrubbed young competitors, McDonald was living a musicians’ life before the show, writing and touring endlessly as the front man of The Grand Magnolias, a Nashville-based Americana rock band.

The veteran songwriter in a cast of budding performers, McDonald has been a wild card element from the beginning, but Paul’s effortless charm, uncomplicated passion, and raspy tenor vocals promoted him to an easy favorite. “It wasn’t my goal to win American Idol,” he admits. “I kind of did it for fun, but we’ve met so many great people, and it’s opened up so many doors.”

Amid all these new avenues and opportunities though, his songwriting process has remained remarkably the same. Of his compositions, Paul says, “They come in different waves. Sometimes I’ll pick up my guitar and a song will just come out or sometimes I’ll write the guitar part or the piano part and then put lyrics over it later. It’s just kind of how they come out of my body, you know?”

“I’ve tried to open my mind to a lot of different kinds of records and experience different artists, make my writing a little bit better,” he elaborates. “And there’s a whole lot of stuff to write about right now because this is such a serious transition period.”

“I’ve got a lot of material to work with, and I’m just going to go into the studio and take my time, try to make something really good,” Paul states in a rare moment of solemnity. “To me, it’s really never been about anything more than making good music and playing good songs.”

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Bonnaroo Article

“Bonnaroo Superlatives and Overall Festival Wrap-Up”

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

the infamous arch

Well, I survived my first Bonnaroo… something that I wasn’t so sure of going into the weekend… but I came out okay on the other side, and what’s more is that I can honestly say I had the time of my life. I feel comfortable now saying that I was genuinely worried about the lack of sleep and the heat and the sweat and the dirt and the general lack of hygiene and everything else unpleasant that comes with a four-day camping festival in Tennessee in June (and I feel comfortable saying this now because they were in fact real concerns, not just the girly dramatizations of my mind), but no matter how much all of those things affected my experience, I (and I think it’s safe to say that 95% of my Bonnaroo peers would say the same) walked away with a smile and a sunburn and remained otherwise unscathed.

In general, my days (other than the day we actually got there and set up camp, which was slightly different if only in time frames) went like this:

8:00-8:30 — Wake up sweaty and hot as a result of the sun beating down on my tent, creating a tiny makeshift sauna; position myself directly under the oh-so-valuable tent ceiling fan (yes, they have those!!) to try to go back to sleep; wake up five minutes later, still burning up, and exit tent into the bright, dewy morning
8:30-9:30 — Trip to the nearest porta-potties/wash stations; back to the campsite to try to sleep just a few more minutes in a lawn chair; greet fellow campers as they emerge and do the exact same thing; eventually give up on sleep and grab the nearest Gatorade/bottle of water/liquid of any kind; make breakfast, which could range from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to an orange to a beer to instant grits
9:30-10:00 — Turn the car on to charge up my phone; use this precious 30 minutes to also change clothes in the car with the AC blasting

a lovely middle of the scorching day shot

10:00-11:00 — Sit around in lawn chairs and various other minimally physical activities to reduce the chances of sweating, some of which included reading, drinking beer, spraying each other with misty fans, making sandwiches, telling stories and reminiscing about the events of the previous day, cheeseball eating contest, etc.
11:00-11:30 — Get ready to leave the campsite for the day; pack backpack with water, coozie, power bars, flashlight, picnic blanket, wet wipes, toilet paper, sunscreen, schedule, phone, wallet, sunglasses, etc.; apply copious amounts of sunscreen; fill misty fans with melted ice water from coolers; grab road beer; zip up tent; lock car
11:30-12:00 — Walk into Centeroo; set lunch meeting time and place; split up for various shows beginning at noon
12:00-3:00 — Go to shows (approximately three); fill up water bottle (approx. twice); reapply sunscreen (approx. once); eat lunch or snack
3:00-4:00 — Find a shady place (if possible) to lay out picnic blanket and take a nap
4:00-6:00 — Go to more shows (approximately 1.5, depends on the day and the schedule); drink more water; maybe do a little shopping or just walking around (because the heat is somehow more bearable when moving as opposed to just standing or sitting and sweating)
6:00-7:00 — Lay the picnic blanket out again (probably near one of the bigger stages in order to sit and enjoy one of the bigger acts); take turns going to get dinner

a Bonnaroo summer sunset

7:00-10:00 — Rejoice in the setting of the sun and the resulting cooler temperatures; find a place farther up in the crowd for the headlining act; rock out to the headlining act
10:00-11:00 — Leave the headlining show a little early to beat some of the crowd; walk back to the campsite
11:00-12:00 — Spend some quality time at the wash stations with some freezing cold water, a bar of soap, a toothbrush, and some shampoo; lean head over sink to wash dirt, sweat, sunscreen, etc. out of hair; use giant cup to wash/rinse arms and legs; use washcloth to rinse rest of body as well as possible; resist wasting time washing dirty, dirty feet
12:00-1:00 — Sit around at the campsite, drinking beer, wiping dirt off feet with wet wipes, competing in a cheeseball eating contest (again), texting Mom to let her know we’re still alive and well, talking about what late night shows to attend
1:00-2:00 — Take a nap before going back to Centeroo for the late night show
2:00-2:15 — Wake up and realize the late night show is starting right now and also realize that sleep sounds like such a better option
2:15-8:00 — Glorious slumber in the cool, refreshing night

the 20-something people on stage for Mumford's encore

As far as the music goes, there were some good shows and some great shows. With the exception of The Black Keys ending their set 30 minutes early with no encore to follow, I was never disappointed by an act’s performance. It seemed like every artist I watched was throwing him/herself into the performance, despite the heat and the sun and all other circumstances. The best example of that fact was Mumford and Sons’ show. They played as if Bonnaroo 2011 was the last show they’d ever play, which is of course, far from the truth. And their encore consisted of a 7-minute rendition of “Amazing Grace,” sung and played by members of Apache Relay, Mumford and Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Cadillac Sky, as well as the legendary Jerry Douglas himself. Yeah. So the Award for Best Encore goes to Mumford and Sons.

The Award for Most Eclectic Crowd goes to Primus.

The Award for Best Frontman goes to Robert Plant and Band of Joy.

The Award for the Best Sit Down and Chill While Listening Act is a tie between Amos Lee and Iron and Wine.

Bela and his banjo

The Award for Best Spot in the Crowd goes to Bela Fleck, not really for anything he did, except for the fact that I knew I could only enjoy a portion of the performance from far away, only being able to hear the music. To truly get the full experience at a Bela Fleck and the Flecktones performance, I knew I would have to be so close that I could see how fast and nimbly their fingers were moving. It was incredible, and well worth the elbowing and the extra sweat factor involved in standing among thousands of other hot, sweaty people. And I can now officially say that I’ve seen the original lineup of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, which is quite something in and of itself.

The Award for Best Main Stage Act is a tie between The Decemberists and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.

The Award for Best Big Name, Daytime Act is a tie between Alison Krauss and Union Station and Old Crow Medicine Show.

The Award for Best Act that Piqued My Curiosity and I Now Need to Look Up goes to Beirut.

David Mayfield and sister Jessica Lea

The Award for Most Surprising Act goes to The David Mayfield Parade. I had heard of the band before, mostly in relation or conjunction with Mayfield’s also musical sister Jessica Lea Mayfield, but knew very little about them beyond that. I went to their Thursday night show because friends of mine dragged me along. And wow! They are fantastic! We were right up front for all the action on stage, which included corny jokes and unbelievable guitar solos from the larger-than-life, boisterous bearded man that is David Mayfield himself, a tiny yet impressively adroit little fiddle player, a female bass player whose long blonde hair hung directly in front of her face 80% of the show, a ginger lead guitar player, and an equally as epicly bearded drummer with an unexpected but lovely singing voice. The band blew me away and in doing so, registered themselves as by far my favorite show of Thursday’s line up. I bought their album immediately after returning home (well, immediately after a shower, that is).

The Award for Best Up and Coming Act goes to The Head and the Heart.

The Award for Most Unexpectedly Large Crowd is a tie between Florence and the Machine, Neon Trees, and Sleigh Bells.

The Award for Oldest Crowd is a tie between Gregg Allman and Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers.

the six-piece from Music City

The Award for Best Local Act goes to Apache Relay, who just killed an all-too-short Sunday evening set. Theirs was the last show I attended before leaving Manchester forever (read: until next year), and it was one hell of a way to close out the festival. The six piece band had all the instruments for a bluegrass or Americana band, but these guys played nothing if not straight up rock. I actually have the privilege of being able to say that I know most of the members of Apache Relay, each of them being former Belmont students like myself, but even fully understanding how talented each of these guys is did not prepare me for their exceptional stage presence and raging, fiery, exciting set. Nashville can be so, so proud.

The Award for Best Introduction goes to The Black Keys for having Aziz Ansari.

The Award for Best Dance Show goes to Walk the Moon.

And the Award for Best Headliner goes to My Morning Jacket.

I could go on and on about Crazy Things That Happened at Bonnaroo, or Awesome and Unexpected Collaborations on Stage, or How I Managed to Get In on Thursday and Out on Sunday in Under an Hour Each, but truly, truly, the festival called Bonnaroo is an experience that you can only fully understand after having experienced it for yourself. And everyone’s Bonnaroo is completely unique. So, my final words on the subject are simply these: I will see you there next year.

Kerli Article

Kerli

“BubbleGoth”

By Emily J Ramey

Written for BMI: MusicWorld

As defined by its poster child, the term “bubblegoth” is about “putting together things that don’t necessarily go together. It’s about making dark things beautiful and beautiful things dark,” and 24-year-old Estonian singer/songwriter Kerli believes in and lives out those ideals everyday, extending her fascinations into both extremes and working to understand their dichotomy through her music. Kerli’s unique brand of electropop personifies the light and dark polarity of “bubblegoth;” it is ethereal and smoldering, gossamer yet tenebrous, electronic, intricate, expansive.

It seems clear that conviction and innovation are key factors in the creation of Kerli’s music as well as her image, inspiration that most assuredly stemmed from the necessity of imagination during her childhood. “I grew up in Estonia, and my family was very small town. I never had any art or creativity around me, so I had to create that for myself.” Now, that ideology has manifested itself into something more sophisticated, although still quite visionary. “I always write in colors,” she explains. “I try to paint the picture with lyrics and with sounds and melody, so that each song has a lot of personality.”

Despite the distinctiveness of her background and philosophies, Kerli’s songwriting process sounds not unlike the time-tested patterns of a pro. “I like going out into the world and taking note of what people are thinking and feeling, then I try to see everything that I’ve gathered through my own lens and attach it to my own concept.”

And that concept is shaping up to be both insightful and esoteric: “the human search for perfection, or somebody’s idea of perfection.” For her sophomore album, expected this fall, Kerli succumbed to her natural obsessions. “I find a lot in my art that I write about overcoming obstacles… even if I don’t mean to, it just sort of comes out that way.”

As for motivation, well, it’s like I said – poster child. She is representing the greater population of her growing “bubblegoth” community. “My fans are a big part of what I do… it’s like we’re all doing it together; I’m just a piece of the puzzle.”

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Tin Pan South Review

Tin Pan South

“The Problem with Tin Pan South”

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

I wrote once long ago that songwriters seem like pensive people. Not people who separate themselves from the rest of us, but rather people who understand the world a little better than we do, or at least can express their perceptions of it in more profound ways, and therefore relate differently to it.

Songwriters, good ones that is, have an uncanny ability to seek out our universally human fears and desires and articulate them in a manner to which we can not only connect, but feel as if those were the words we would have chosen ourselves, had we but had a far more expressive vocabulary. When we lack the capacity to convey our true hearts, we often find the words in songs. Words set to music reach their audience on a divine level, a plane on which we feel more ardently and openly. I believe it is the power to elevate our thoughts that generates such a passion for music in all of us alike.

NSAI’s Tin Pan South is Music City’s way of celebrating our songwriters. Named for the infamous region of lower Manhattan that boasted great numbers of songwriters and publishers each banging out tunes on cacophonous pianos (creating a sound like clanging tin pans together… or so the story goes) and an early 20th century era in which songwriters went to work in suits in an effort to convince the rest of the world of the legitimacy of their occupation, Tin Pan South’s primary purpose is to drag the hitmakers, composers, writers, lyricists, etc. out from their offices and homes and into the spotlight… if only for a week. Each year, 8-10 venues host two shows a night for five nights. Each show highlights 3-5 artists. Without actually doing the math, I think it’s safe to say that Nashville is positively crawling with this sort of backstage talent.

The problem with Tin Pan South though is that you have to choose. And whether you’re going for sound or location, artist or favorite hit, the opportunity cost is great. Of the 88 shows and hundreds of brilliant musicians to choose from, one can really only see 10 of those shows, and that’s working at it. I made it to five of my ten possible and enjoyed every minute, but there are always stand outs, and for me, there were two.

Station Inn

The Station Inn is the perfect sort of venue for nights like these. Tin Pan South celebrates the songwriters of this town by stripping down the show, by tossing them on badly lit stages and in dingy, low-ceilinged old places, by letting talent speak for itself.

I had no idea what to expect from a late Thursday show with Marshall Chapman, Phil Lee, Meaghan Owens, and RB Morris, but I certainly didn’t anticipate the grizzly, organic thing it became. Three well-seasoned musicians and one up-and-comer make for one hell of a show.

Highlights included Chapman’s groovy guitar work, Lee’s bluesy searing harmonica riffs (and string of dirty lines throughout), Owens’ rosy, girlish melodies (notably a beautiful French refrain), and Morris’ understated humor and blustery vocals. Chapman read a passage from her recently published book, they all chatted and joked and told stories and the audience, well, we just got to be in on it.

Listening Room Cafe

The Listening Room’s early show began long before the sun went down on Saturday, but there are reasons to come indoors early on a perfect spring evening. The gleaming, folksy vocals of the players at the corner cafe, the resonant acoustics of four musicians: Gordon Kennedy, Wayne Kirkpatrick, Phil Madeira, and Cindy Morgan Brouwer.

Kirkpatrick with his murky bayou rhythms, Madeira and his complex guitar instrumentation and wide-ranging repertoire, Kennedy’s effortless falsetto and warm melodies, and Brouwer with her silvery, gospel-tinged piano tunes and casual charm together on stage made for an evening of pleasant and easy listening.

On the whole, the Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival is unpretentious and underhyped. It’s such a critically important aspect of what makes Nashville Music City, and we need not take it for granted. Living in Nashville where creativity aptitude is concentrated and abundant, it’s easy to forget how truly rare sheer talent is in the rest of the music world. Here, our songwriters have one short week in the spotlight, and it is our job to turn our faces to their light and let them shine upon us.

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The Strokes’ “Angles” Review

Album Cover

The Strokes

“Angles”

March 2011; RCA Records

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

So far as I can tell The Strokes newest release is causing controversy, a rift, if you will, among fans and critics. Listeners that relished in the darkened, raw fascinations of the band’s previous works may not welcome Angles’ differences, but early critiques of The Strokes’ fourth studio album are praising their radical ingenuity and youthful willingness to change their winning formula without turning their backs on it altogether.

I have to side with my fellow critics on this one though. I haven’t been much of a Strokes fan in the past, and not because I can’t appreciate the shadowy places from which Casablancas’ creative springs flowed, but there just wasn’t more than one or two tracks for me to grab hold of. Angles however sprawls musically, but without feeling scattered, courses without overflowing, thaws without burning.

The first Strokes record written collaboratively as a band is happier than ever before; in fact, at times I would even call it positively bouncy. Highlights include kitschy opener “Machu Picchu,” which seems to serve as the bastard child of Muse and Hot Fuss-era Killers; new wavy “Two Kinds of Happiness” and its master guitar work; “Taken for a Fool,” which is the closest on Angles to old Strokes material; the Billy Joel-ish “Gratisfaction;” and the broad, beautiful “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight.”

The Strokes seem to be turning a corner and looking west into a summery, molten setting sun. It’s different than previous albums, but it’s worthwhile in its own right. Give Angles a chance.

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The Low Anthem’s “Smart Flesh” Review

Album Cover

The Low Anthem

Smart Flesh

February 2011; Nonesuch Records

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

The Low Anthem is in my opinion one of the most overlooked bands in contemporary folk today. And what a travesty! The dreamy, rustic lo-fi Americana so characteristic of the Rhode Island trio is both pastoral and experimental. Instrumentation included jaw harp, musical saw, stylophone, oversized drum kits, and three antique pump organs that the band had found and restored. The exquisitely crafted refrains, the occasional achingly sparse arrangements, the sprawling, carefully laid tracks are uniquely charged with a glowing, ethereal quality that makes each song feel as if it is actually being played in a 19th century farmhouse by a few simple country citizens of frontier America and is merely being filtered into the present somehow.

Halcyon and lovely, “Apothecary Love” is as old-fashioned as it is ambrosial, a first listen find. “Boeing 737” is a personal favorite with its cacophonous ambience, a musical presence that can nearly be considered a supplementary instrument, a sonic background I later learned is a result of recording the album in an abandoned warehouse. The whirring, atmospheric “Matter of Time” is a mournful ballad of loneliness and mounting silence; the tenuous instrumental fraught with woodwinds “Wire” with its meticulous viscosity is a breath of vernal breeze on an otherwise autumnal album; and “Burn,” is a slender, ethereal tune that showcases the effortless and natural timbre of Ben Knox Miller’s vocals while remaining eerie, isolated, and cavernous.

I once read The Low Anthem described as “what Bob Dylan would have sounded like in the 1860s rather than the 1960s.” The phrase stuck with me, as does the music it’s describing. Give this one some time, and when listening, really study the notes; the subtleties on Smart Flesh are not to be missed.

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