David Jacobs-Strain Bio

David Jacobs-Strain

David Jacobs-Strain

Supporting Geneseo

By Emily J Ramey

Written for David Jacobs-Strain

Expounding upon classic themes of broken hearts, winding roads, and flashbacks of Oregon summers, David’s newest work, Geneseo, is a collection of contemporary songs in keeping with longstanding folk traditions of Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie. “I try to make art that you can dance to,” says David, “but I love that darker place in my mind where Skip James, Nick Drake, and maybe Elliot Smith blur together.”

The album plays with traditional refrains and modern execution, balancing silvery slide guitar with warm bass and resonant drums. Imperfect vocals, conviction saturating every note, harken back to an age that has provided much of David’s inspiration, of one-take recordings, singing for supper, and the hard-won American dream that raw talent will endure. “I’m fascinated by the way that rural blues inscribes movement and transience,” the young songwriter explains. “There’s a crossroads where a thing can be both enchanting and dangerous.”

Those familiar with David’s previous studio work, Stuck on the Way Back, Ocean or a Teardrop, Liars Day, Terraplane Angel, or his live follow-up, Live from the Left Coast, will recognize his characteristic casual harmonies, incandescent lyrical motifs, and complex guitar work, but there’s something new and exciting in this compilation, perhaps a result of the overwhelming fan support he received by funding the album with Kickstarter. “It feels great to have people stand up and say that it means something to them.”

29-year-old David nurtured his musical abilities early while growing up in small-town Oregon: “I got my first guitar for $10 at a garage sale when I was nine years old.” Something struck with a chord with David, who began playing street corners and farmers’ markets in middle school without the burden of formal musical training. “I don’t read tablature; I don’t read music. I play totally by ear.” He found inspiration among his pioneer blues heroes as well as current acts like Lucinda Williams and Taj Mahal, all the while developing his own class of cool, undulating refrains.

The Stanford dropout was playing festivals across the country, including the prestigious Newport Folk Festival, by the time he was nineteen and has been featured at a dozen since, including Merlefest, Telluride Blues Festival, Philadelphia Folk Festival, and Seattle’s Bumbershoot. He’s taught at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch, and at fifteen years old was the youngest faculty member ever at Centrum’s Blues and Heritage workshop.

On the road, he’s shared the stage with champions of the folk, blues, and jazz communities, musicians like Lucinda Williams, Boz Scaggs, Etta James, The Doobie Brothers, George Thorogood, Robert Earle Keen, Todd Snider, Taj Mahal, Janis Ian, Tommy Emmanuel, Bob Weir, T-Bone Burnett, and Del McCoury. But Geneseo, more than any of his previous recordings, feels like a confident step into his own, fleshing out a distinctively contemporary niche among sounds and influences of a bygone era.

Geneseo began as an experiment. Camped out in a converted 19th century church, Strain recorded guitar and vocals on a laptop, rarely using more than one microphone. “It was winter in rural upstate New York. We had very little daylight but endless old instruments to try.” A road trip to Los Angeles brought in drummer Scott Seiver (Pete Yorn, Flight of the Conchords), and bassist Jon Flaughers (Ryan Adams) and David Immergluck (Counting Crows) on pedal steel as well, after a chance meeting in a Hollywood bar.

“All the songs were written, but I didn’t have a budget or a plan,” David explains. “I couldn’t stand waiting, so we just started recording ad hoc.” Caitlin Carey of Whiskey Town sent harmonies and fiddle tracks by email, Band of Horses’ bassist Bill Reynolds Dropboxed a track for the impressionist blues closer “Josephine,” and long-time collaborator Bob Beach recorded harmonica solos in Philadelphia. By spring, the record was an overwhelming collage of sounds and parts. To pare the record back down to its organic core, David enlisted Beau Sorenson (Death Cab for Cutie) and Billy Barnett (Frank Black, Cherry Popping Daddies): “Everything that would fit on twenty-three tracks was moved to analog tape, then we turned off the computer screen and mixed as if it were 1953.”

Despite his youth, David Jacobs-Strain is cultivating, without hesitation or pretension, a presence among the founding greats of our time. “Music is the only job I’ve ever had; I have no back up plan,” he declares. “I’m going to put everything I have into this… or I’m going to try.”

David’s new release will be available June 25, 2013. For more information about David and Geneseo, go to http://www.davidjacobs-strain.com.

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Merry Ellen Kirk Bio

Supporting Firefly Garden

By Emily J Ramey

Written for Merry Ellen Kirk

Merry Ellen Kirk

Merry Ellen Kirk is a poet. Perhaps “songwriter” is a more commonly used term, but it’s also too commonplace for Merry Ellen’s glittering narratives, songs that spring up wildly from her subconscious and bloom into vibrant, lilting melodies. Her sparkling piano refrains sweep and spill into fresh, sweet rivulets of notes; her lyrics weave bright, halcyon tales of dream sequences, the light and dark polarities of the human experience, and beauty in its many forms. “I write about light and dark a lot… good and evil, dreams and reality, the darker and lighter parts of the human soul,” she explains.

Despite the undeniable tension in her thematic obsessions, Merry Ellen Kirk explores her dichotomies with grace. She writes songs with the cool effortlessness of youth, sings with the jaunty simplicity and breezy flair of a practiced performer, and plays with fleet fingers and subtle polish. In cultivating her own sound, Merry Ellen has employed a few key elements from her predecessors: the classical prowess of Tori Amos, the natural poise of Sarah McLachlan, the quiet pensiveness of A Fine Frenzy, and the bold whimsy of Regina Spektor.

Growing up a missionaries’ daughter in Mongolia has had its effect on Merry Ellen’s music, creating a refreshingly broad perspective from so young a person. “I think it mostly comes out in my approach to life. I feel like more of my songs are about the world and making the world a better place. My music is about seeing the world and being better for it.”

Of her unconventional childhood musical inclinations Merry Ellen reveals, “In Mongolia, they don’t have pianos, but I knew it was always something that I wanted to do – play piano. So when we moved back, I started taking lessons.” They were the tiny seeds of something greater, a glowing catalyst dawning on Merry Ellen’s path. “It was definitely a huge risk to just put myself out there and start doing this full time when I was seventeen. I had only written a couple of songs, but I knew that it was what I wanted to do.”

A true Nashville singer/songwriter, Merry Ellen works best under pressure, dividing her artistic talents among multiple projects – like serving as half of burgeoning folk duo The Shakespeares and developing a pop venture with fellow songwriter Rachel Pearl – all the while tending her own flowering repertoire. “I’m inspired by other artists, and sometimes things in nature, too, because God’s the artist there. I write songs from those moments.”

On her sophomore album, Firefly Garden, 21-year-old Merry Ellen spins a gossamer web of silvery tunes that glints and glistens with morning dew and lightly stroked piano keys. “Every week for ten weeks I recorded a song, and it was really therapeutic for me. It was freeing,” she says. “I think that’s what the album is about: all this crazy stuff is happening around you, but it’s important to find your inspiration and your beautiful place in life.”

The record, produced by Shakespeares counterpart Aaron Krause, is an enchanted glimpse into Merry Ellen’s sun-dappled mind, a veritable Eden of lush emerald canopies and richly tinted florets in which her music becomes the soundtrack to a verdant dream like delicate chimes floating on the billows of perfumed zephyrs. Among the high points of Firefly Garden lie the colorful, saccharine lyrics of “Candy,” which are a cleverly draped disguise for a faintly melancholy word on chimeras and the hope and sorrow they arouse; the muted, jazzy, rhythmic tune “Do You?” that channels a Pieces-of-You-era Jewel or even a dusky Corinne Bailey Rae; the exquisite “Masquerade,” an intricate, tortured tribute to Romeo and Juliet that features a rolling, minor piano and a heavy, fragile despair; and “Clair de Lune,” a lovely, diaphanous interpretation of Debussy’s famous melody complete with Merry Ellen’s own lyrics, that swells and ebbs like salty tides breaking lazily on gleaming white sand, a performance both deeply felt and lavishly played.

“I feel like everything that happens in your life kind of goes into your songs. It’s something that becomes part of your music. Who you are is your music.” Becoming so helplessly entwined with one’s music is a silent commitment to see the world through different eyes, an unalterable promise to commit one’s life to the glorious immortal verse. That poetry is what sight would be to the blind, speech to the dumb, walking to the crippled, and life to the condemned, but Merry Ellen Kirk sees, speaks, walks, lives, and she has poetry.

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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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Katie Costello’s “Lamplight” Review

Album Cover

Katie Costello


February 2011; Tiny Tiny Records

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

Katie Costello is an outrageously cute blonde girl, who just happens to also be a wellspring of blithe melodies and incredibly profound motifs. At the young age of fifteen Katie began to pursue her passion for music and started work on her debut. She self-released Kaleidoscope Machine at just seventeen, and even then, her original sound and old-timey vibe won her songs placements on shows like 90210, One Tree Hill, and Private Practice. When I read a press release comparing Katie’s music to that of A Fine Frenzy, Adele, and Regina Spektor, three of my all-time favorites, I knew I had to get my hands on her newest effort, Lamplight.

What I’ve discovered about the 20-year-old singer/songwriter is that she writes with the wit and phrasing of someone much older, more experienced, but her interpretation is that of youth, playful and rosy. On Lamplight, Costello addresses thematic elements that any teenage girl might be preoccupied with. In her quirky and insightful way, Katie sings about relationships with friends and boyfriends as well as the world around her and the people that populate it, exploring bigger pictures in order to better understand the nature of humanity. Fundamentally, Katie’s songs document the lovely foundations of a young poet’s reflection.

A sophomore album without true low points, Lamplight arcs finely over the course of about 48 minutes. The vibrant, sprightly “Cassette Tape” is an ebullient, roaming autobiography, a buoyant opener. “Ashes Ashes” hovers and wafts gently, wispy harmonies draping the tune like morning dew. Jaunty, electric “No Shelter” struts boldly, sporting the occasional vintage guitar riff and a dynamic beat.

Cool duet “Out Of Our Minds” features Greg Holden, enchanting piano accompaniment, a few sparse and breezy strings, and the bright-eyed words of a dreamer. “Old Owl” is a sleepy ode to the burden of wisdom, reminiscent of an early Ingrid Michaelson tune. “People: A Theory” is another lively melody laden with eccentricities and golden whimsy, a charming brand of songwriting perfected by British singer/songwriter Kate Nash. And “Stranger” feels like a great sigh, quietly closing the album with beauty and contentment, the way Sara Bareilles’ “Gravity” swirls and glides into silence.

Katie Costello is an oh-so-refreshing new perspective on the female folk pop scene, and her delicate collection of light, glittering melodies is not to be missed. Lamplight provides an ideal soundtrack as winter frosts melt in the warmth of the sun and spring blossoms push through to the surface at last.

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Punch Brothers Review

“Punch Brothers Give Nashville the Old One-Two”

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

makin' it look easy

As of Tuesday night, I have seen mandolinist Chris Thile play six times – once as part of newgrass trio Nickel Creek, once as a solo act, and four times with his most recent endeavor, Punch Brothers. At this point, I consider myself pretty much an authority on the guy; I know a lot of things about him.

I know that he was eight years old when Nickel Creek formed. I know that he has five solo albums to his name and dozens of appearances on other artists’ works. I know that he likes covering his favorite bands’ tunes, especially those that might seem like unorthodox choices for bluegrass instruments (Wilco, Pavement, Elliott Smith, and Weezer are all classic examples). He’s been called a virtuoso and a prodigy and rightfully so with over two decades of experience composing and performing despite being just days from his 30th birthday. But of all the things I’ve learned about Chris Thile, there is one that stands out as steadfast personal experience: I am never bored while watching him play.

With all that said, Thile’s Punch Brothers is one of his most intriguing projects. The quintet’s 2010 release Antifogmatic had critics at a loss for words… with regard to its pure, undiluted virtuosity, yes, but also with regard to simply what genre in which to categorize it. The album, and much of Thile’s life’s work for that matter, is a refreshing and effortless blend of classical and folk and bluegrass, threaded with strains of country and pop – a rare hybrid, delicately plucked and expertly tuned. And Thile’s fellow musicians – Gabe Witcher (violin), Chris Eldridge (guitar), Paul Kowert (bass), and Noam Pikelny (banjo) – are just as dexterous and just as droll. Together, the Punch Brothers form a masterful group, delightfully wry though for all their panache.

Punch Brothers have built up some clout in Music City too, because their Tuesday night show at Mercy Lounge sold out easily, a rarity in this town. And even more surprisingly, the crowd was packing in and buzzing with excitement, fighting for the last good spots in the crowd, more than 30 minutes before show time. Energy was expanding, billowing through the audience, becoming palpable, and suspending itself over our heads. And then, without ceremony or grandeur, the Brothers took to the stage.

master o' mandolin

They jumped right in, without words, opening the show with the first two tunes from Antifogmatic, “You Are” and “Don’t Need No,” as well as fan favorite, “Heart in a Cage” by The Strokes, already settling into a casual groove, easing into loose harmonies and the group’s characteristically tight dynamics. Thile and company were clearly responding to the room’s enthusiasm; although their faces remained poised, their eyes and fingers were alight with the verve whipping through the throng. The quintet continued with the opener from 2008’s Punch, “Punch Bowl,” before blazing through the snarky, “relationship-centric” tune “Next to the Trash.”

A cover of Josh Ritter’s “Annabel Lee” slowed the pace of the show, the Punch Brothers’ strings echoing quiet, evocative refrains for the first time over the course of the evening and following up with the delicate, swelling Antifogmatic single “Alex.” At this point, each of the musicians was consumed with the music, independently teetering and reeling to the rhythm of the melody like blades of grass wavering in a summer breeze.

With passions running high, Punch Brothers performed the 1st part of their “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” an ambitious forty-minute suite in four movements that toys with dissonance and layers complexities, incorporating countless melodic intricacies perceptible only by the most astute ear – a true masterpiece, showcasing each of the members’ individual skill while maintaining the fluidity of an opus.

From there, the show was wild and unrestrained, intensifying, gathering speed, as though musically, we were rolling down a mountain to the end of the show. Continuing with a killer cover of The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer,” a beautiful, new tune (which Thile promised would be on the album they’ll begin working on over the summer) called “Full and Empty Hours,” and an old pick “Watch’at Breakdown,” from Thile’s 2006 album How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, Punch Brothers had the crowd back in riotous good spirits. Answering the crowd’s frenzied cheers, the group played their rollicking “Rye Whiskey” and a scorching rendition of Gillian Welch’s “Wayside (Back in Time)” to wrap up the set.

While applauding and roaring for more, I wondered, “Gosh, can they be any more amazing?” And as if in answer to my very thoughts, Thile mounted the stage alone… to play JS Bach’s “Sonata #1 in G Minor” in double time. Yes, double time. It was one of those unparalleled moments in music when one’s mouth drops open with genuine awe, in pure astonishment of even being in the same room with such raw genius. Then, as though lifting a spell, the rest of the Punch Brothers joined Thile onstage to finish the night with a blistering cover of Welsh punk band Mclusky’s “Icarus Smicarus.”

Convincing rumors spread excitedly after the show that Béla Fleck and Jerry Douglas, old friends of Thile’s, were in attendance, blending into the crowd impressively for two bluegrass gods among droves of bluegrass fans. All the elements for a regular old front porch jam session were present that night at Mercy Lounge… with just one gaping hole – odds are a thousand to one that the musicians available for the rocking chair symposium could possibly be as talented or as in sync as the Punch Brothers themselves.

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The Civil Wars’ “Barton Hollow” Review

Album Cover

The Civil Wars

“Barton Hollow”

February 2011; Sensibility Music LLC

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

The Civil Wars have sprouted from the ground like a slender vine, winding slowly at first and then shooting into the sunny mainstream through a series of fortunate accidents. Young duo though they may be, Joy Williams and John Paul White make a remarkable pair. Their dynamics are poised and expressive, and their voices meld exquisitely, as one might have thought only siblings’ might.

The duo’s customary guitar and violin instrumentation is occasionally accompanied by ethereal piano tones that act as lingering sprigs of fresh greenery among the folksy brambles that preoccupy the rest of the album. On the whole, Barton Hollow is a sinuous tribute to centuries past and melodies forgotten, saturated with captivating turns of phrase.

Opener “20 Years” billows and lopes, beginning the album with an almost whimsical guitar lick. “C’est la Mort” is a delicate, pleading tune, the American folk cousin to the tentative, graceful chords of European duo The Swell Season (of Once fame). The Civil Wars’ breakout hit “Poison and Wine” exudes desperation and heartache, wading through the melancholy with one recurring phrase: “Oh, I don’t love you, but I always will.”

“My Father’s Father” trots lightly, beads of sadness clinging to the tune like dew, manifested in an echoing slide guitar. Then, the title track roars in, blazing and flaring like an old-world forest fire; harmonies glow hotly as blistering strings flicker alongside their voices. The album’s lone instrumental, “The Violet Hour,” directly follows “Barton Hollow,” acting as water splashed across the flames, elegant and haunting.

“Girl with the Red Balloon” is a refreshingly minor track, an elegiac tale of love lost and a girl who is “always and never alone.” “Forget Me Not” washes over the listener like a summer rain – warm, gentle, cleansing; the tune is reminiscent of traditional country duets, steady and broad, made modern by a twinkling mandolin.

The Civil Wars can be proud of their extraordinarily rich debut. Barton Hollow musters the beginnings of a long, lovely road, and speaking personally, I’ll “walk miles and miles in my bare feet” if I have to.

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Amos Lee’s “Mission Bell” Review

Album Cover

Amos Lee

“Mission Bell”

January 2011; Blue Note Records

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

Amos Lee, despite being a musician, a singer, a songwriter, and a performer, is one of those strong, silent types. With his thoroughly unpretentious attitude and totally recognizable voice, Lee floats through the music world with seemingly little effort other than pure and wide-ranging talent. Lee has made a name for himself as a gentle and organic addition to the modern American folk songbook, ranking among fellow songwriting pros Ray LaMontagne, Colin Hay, Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, and Blue Note label mate Norah Jones.

With his newest release, Lee confirms his ability to mellow out any afternoon and ease any sorrow. Mission Bell is Lee’s fourth album and first since 2008’s Last Days at the Lodge, and this time, Lee has invited everyone from Willie Nelson to Lucinda Williams, Priscila Ahn to Pieta Brown to be guests on the album.

In the past, Lee’s musical style has encompassed folk, soul, and jazz, but Mission Bell branches out further still, exuding traditional country and gospel overtones and exploring nearly religious themes while maintaining his characteristically mild manner and fluently rich melodies.

Highlights of Mission Bell include the subtle, strolling rhythm of “Windows are Rolled Down,” and the quietly radiant “Violin,” featuring Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, that washes over the listener with a warm, salty spray. The shadowy, minor “Out of the Cold” breathes a darker aspect of Lee’s tonality into the album with lyrics like, “Looking at the pictures up on the shelf/He feels a mere shadow of himself/22 years, still he feels so old/It takes a lot of lovin’ comin’ out of the cold.”

The soulful, rumbling “Jesus” is a dense and bluesy electric number that has Lee all but howling as the guitars buzz and the beat swaggers. Acoustically traditional “Cup of Sorrow” belongs in a mossy old whitewashed Baptist church; it drones like a quaint country hymn, complete with sweetly warbling organ, gospel-y chorus, and pleas for wisdom. And “Clear Blue Eyes” with Lucinda Williams is a folksy duet that swoons and wanders forlornly.

Amos Lee’s music drifts into a room the way a summer sun streams through a leafy canopy, light and golden and softly diffused. His melodies are understated and supple, soothing the listener and dusting off sounds of simpler days. Despite the slight diversion from what we’ve come to expect from Amos Lee, Mission Bell is a solid collection for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

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