Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Interview with Drew Holcomb

Americana has become one of those genres that is easier to define by its characters than its characteristics, a fact that is wonderfully embodied by the boundary-blurring sound of Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors. Over the last decade, Holcomb and his band have put out some of the best roots-inspired music the genre has to offer, with their previous album Good Light garnering them their largest audience yet and some much-deserved attention from radio and television.

As both a “thank you” to fans and also as an exciting lead-up to the release of their new album Medicine (out January 27, 2015), they are currently offering Good Light in its entirety for a limited time here on NoiseTrade.

Ahead of the release of their new album, I spoke with Holcomb about the breakthrough of Good Light, his inaugural Moon River Festival, and what fans can expect from Medicine.

NoiseTrade: Looking back at Good Light, to what do you attribute the splash it made on the charts and the buzz it generated with fans old and new?

Drew Holcomb: We have been a band for nearly a decade, and when we made Good Light, I had a much clearer vision as a songwriter than I had on previous records. We decided to keep the recording process simpler than we had before. In the end, the album felt more like we play as a live touring band, a lot less going on sonically, with better articulated songs, melodies, and arrangements.
As a songwriter, there are songs on Good Light that were way more personal and more mature than anything I had written before; songs like "What Would I Do Without You", "Tennessee", and "Good Light." I think it was the record that we and our fans always wanted us to make.

NT: Good Light allowed you guys to do an international headlining tour for the first time as well. What was that experience like for you as a performer compared to when you play here in the states?

Holcomb: First off, our crowd overseas skews much older. It’s more of a 70's songwriter-loving crowd and less of a hip, Americana crowd. They are very intentional listeners and they give you more benefit of the doubt. Whereas in the states, lots of audiences can throw a vibe that makes you feel like you have to prove something to them. Both are great experiences, just very different.

NT: This summer featured your first annual Moon River Festival that you founded and hosted. What sparked the decision to start your own festival and what was the biggest thing you learned from it?

Holcomb: I've always wanted to host my own festival, and specifically host it in my hometown of Memphis, TN. I wanted to introduce our fans to my city, and to bring artists we have met along the road together for a big family style musical reunion. I learned that it takes a lot more work than I envisioned, but the end result was also more rewarding than I had imagined.

NT: With your new album Medicine being set for release at the end of January, what song are you looking most forward to sharing with your fans?

Holcomb: There's a song called "You'll Always Be My Girl" which might be a career song for me. It’s a simple song about love and marriage, but to me it really speaks to the height of joy and the depth of sorrow that real love entails.

NT: Thinking back to when you were entering the studio to record Good Light, what is one of the biggest differences between your mindset then and more recently when you were getting ready to record Medicine?

Holcomb: I think Good Light gave me the wings I needed to really make music the way I want to make it, without other voices – commercial expectations, or the work of my peers – having too much influence. Medicine is the harvest of that mindset. We recorded Medicine in just 8 days, and it feels like the most natural and present record we have ever made.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Interview with Service Unicorn

I first latched on to the stunning synth stylings of Service Unicorn when "they" (Service Unicorn is a solo project from musician/artist Chris Stewart) released the single "A Single Thread of Silver" here on NoiseTrade. I immediately feel in love with the calculated coldness of the vocals playing the foil to the playful instrument bed of slinky synths, pulsating drum pads, and bouncy bassline. I heard echos of early Depeche Mode, Joy Electric, and even more modern elements of bands like Washed Out and MGMT. Recently, Service Unicorn released their second single "Watercolor Warpaint" and the bubbling synths and disembodied echo-drenched vocals are as sythnfully delicious as they were the first time around. 

Service Unicorn just launched a Kickstarter for their debut EP (details found HERE) and as Stewart tells it: "I’m dreaming big. I’m hoping that this EP will be like the prologue to a bigger story, a truly fitting introduction to Service Unicorn for those who’ve never heard of 'us' before - which would be almost everyone in the world." You can watch Service Unicorn's Kickstarter launch video below and be sure to check out our interview as well!


NoiseTrade: As cliché as it is… Let’s start with the name. I first clicked on your NoiseTrade page because the name Service Unicorn conjured up an immediate image of a helpful unicorn performing daily tasks for someone in need. Where’d the name actually come from? 

Chris Stewart: Precisely! Well, almost. You’re right to picture a helpful unicorn, perhaps wearing one of those service animal vests, alongside a weary/lost/blind traveler. The rationale is this… if a service animal can help a weary/lost/blind individual find their way through everyday life, then I gather a service unicorn would help the mythologically weary/lost/blind individual to truly discover and engage with story, legend, magic and myth. Ultimately, as a Christian, I would think the service unicorn might even lead that mythologically blind individual into the Greater Story, as Professor Lewis must have also believed. 

As a side note… as a lifelong Lewis reader, I somehow never got around to The Great Divorce until this year. I was delighted and surprised to read the passage about the blessing (herd) of heavenly unicorns that come rushing in at one point. I felt like it bolstered my line of thought on the band name, and that Lewis and I were “on the same page” as it were, all along.

NT: What first sparked your interest in analog synthesizers? 

Stewart: I grew up with my mother and grandparents. My grandparents had all kinds of records, but among them was Kraftwerk’s Autobahn (the original release, on vinyl, of course.) My grandmother, in particular, seemed to really drink in the synth textures. I used to see her close her eyes and lay her head back on her chair, just listening and getting lost in it. I knew the synth tones and sounds made me feel strange and lit up some parts of my brain, but that was all I knew at the time, as a child. My grandmother also always played Mannheim Steamroller throughout Christmas time, and those first MS records were really synth-heavy - but I also loved the medieval instrumentation! 

In addition to that, my mom used to write songs on an old Casio keyboard, record her own back up tracks to cassette, and go play in little night clubs. I was really just a toddler then, so the memories are vague, but my mom's solo keyboard project obviously made quite the impression. Looking back, I think I mostly admire her boldness in playing solo with such an odd setup. I would sit with a friend of hers in the audience, and mostly scream and cry wanting mom’s attention, I think. 

Fast-forward to high school. I spent a lot of years as a pre-teen thinking I just wanted to do the classic guitar/drums rock band thing (my biological dad was and still is a drummer, and my great grandmother was a Czech opera singer. I had music coming at me from both sides of the family, really.) I heard a lot of rock and metal growing up, actually. 

Then, in 10th grade, on a seemingly normal school day afternoon, somebody popped in a Joy Electric cd, and that was it for me. I never looked back. It was like hearing magic happening, pouring out of the crummy little classroom boom box. In fact, I think the song might have actually been “The Magic Of” from CHRISTIANsongs, a record I more recently heard Ronnie in an audio interview claim to regret ever making for various reasons, which makes me so sad! 

In more recent years, I’ve retroactively consumed a lot of the music that informed Ronnie’s own song craft (The Smiths, Erasure, Human League, New Order, etc.), but I didn’t grow up on those amazing bands. It was like Joy Electric was just a fresh link in a continuous chain for me at that point, and looking back I realize how interwoven synth music has been in my own musical formation since I was born, really. 

NT: Is the equipment that you work with fairly easy to come by or do you search for the tried-and-true vintage instruments to get the job done? 

Stewart: I only recently managed to put together a genuine, all-analogue setup, which is primarily KORG-based. For a long time, because of my deep admiration for what Ronnie was doing with Joy Electric (esp. early Joy E: Old Wives Tales is the ultimate expression of synth-based storytelling song craft, in my opinion). I thought I could never really produce the kinds of sounds and songs I wanted to without MOOG equipment. Well, it’s comes down to affordability for me-and at this juncture, KORG is making some rugged, true-analogue equipment that a young-ish married man with a fairly ordinary salary, still paying down his student loans can actually afford. 

Don’t get me wrong, I will someday own a MOOG modular or Sub Phatty or maybe find an old Prodigy somewhere! It’s a bucket list item for me, for sure. For now, though, I’ve managed to come into my own with a lot of sounds and tones I genuinely love from the KORG set up I’ve built. None of it is truly vintage at this point, and I’m ok with that. It is truly analogue though, which is something I’ve worked to assemble for a number of years, aiming to no longer rely on software synths - no disrespect to you soft-synth composers out there! I’m still learning the instruments at this point, which is exciting and challenging for me. 

I’m more of a songwriter and less of a gear-head, so taking the time to learn the ins and outs of a real synth when all I really want to do is lay down the next bass line or sparkly hook can be a matter of tedious discipline. But the more I tweak and turn and patch, I discover that I’m learning by way of play, and that’s the only way I really learn anything anyway. It’s the way creativity works. Play. The tinkering has its rewards.


NT: You work in a variety of other creative mediums outside of music. How do those inform your music and vice versa?

Stewart: Yes, I’m a freelance illustrator by night and a graphic designer at an agency by day. I love children’s books. Professionally, that’s a goal of mine, to be a children’s book illustrator. I have a BFA in design, with an illustration concentration. I was mentored by a number of amazing illustrators and professors who managed to make illustration a career-or at least a fairly regular and paying part of their professional lives.

It’s difficult to separate those creative mediums from the songwriting/music, because I’ve been drawing pictures and digesting comic books, etc. for as long or longer than I’ve been writing songs. But once music took hold of me as a pre-teen, it took a deeper root, in some ways, than the visual arts ever had. Songwriting is instinctual at this point. Something I do that comes as naturally as breathing. Illustrating/designing is something I have to sit and make intentional space for. There is an instinctual aspect to that too, of course, but there's even more of a discipline, maybe? Then again, song craft takes a good deal of discipline too. They both take a great deal of one's time to truly hone. 

I think, perhaps, it all comes back around to “wonder” though? I’ve never lost my sense of wonder, especially as that pertains to the mystical/magical/whimsical. So, that feeds into what I tend to create with water color, or pen & ink, as well as the kinds of synthesizer sounds I prefer to build, or the kinds of lyrics I infuse into the songs I write. The common thread is wonder. 

This is an aside, but artists/writers/and so-called creatives are by trade thieves, borrowers and students of the “other.” So, whether I’m taking a mundane walk in the neighborhood, overhearing someone quibbling away in the grocery store or noticing an odd patch of light on the wall across the room, it all becomes fodder to work with later on, if I maintain that sense of wonder about it all. It’s fair game. Artists have eyes to see and ears to hear. I pray I never go blind or deaf. And if I ever do begin to, I’m trusting the Service Unicorn will be right there, willing to let me lean on it, feel its mane, and walk slowly into something brighter and better than I could see or hear with my own dim eyes and ears. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Interview with Ginny Owens

With the release of I Know A Secret (out November 11), singer-songwriter Ginny Owens is back with a collection of introspective, hope-filled songs that are ready to encourage the listener and engage the world. While Owens is best known for her handful of CCM hits like “If You Want Me To,” “Free,” and “I Am,” as well as mainstream adulation from appearances at Lilith Fair and the Sundance Film Festival, her latest album proves that she still has more to say, more to sing, and more to do (including authoring her first book due out at the beginning of next year).

In anticipation of the release of I Know A Secret, Owens has released an exclusive 6-song NoiseTrade Acoustic Sampler to help bring you up to speed with new renditions of some of her best-loved tracks and some stripped-down versions of the soon-to-be classics from her new album. Even if you’re familiar with the album versions of “Be Thou My Vision” and “If You Want Me To,” you’ve never heard them this intimate and crackling with life. “No Borders,” her upcoming single from I Know A Secret is also presented here in a striking acoustic version that showcases the song’s beautiful lyrics and melodic inertia.

I recently spoke with Owens about both her NoiseTrade Acoustic Sampler and I Know A Secret, as well as her new authorial stint with her first book, .

NoiseTrade: Tell us a little bit about the new acoustic versions of the songs you’re offering on your NoiseTrade Acoustic Sampler. Where’d they come from?

Ginny Owens: This sampler contains a fun mix of tunes, including a few I wrote early in my career, my favorite hymn, and a couple acoustic versions of songs from my new studio project, I Know A Secret.

NT: These new versions of some of your best-known material have such a fresh and current feel to them. What’s your secret for making them feel like we’re hearing them for the first time?

Owens: Thank you! Anytime I write a song, I begin the process at the piano or with a guitar. Most of my live shows are me at the piano along with Kyle, my acoustic guitar player. So the versions of my songs on the Noisetrade Acoustic Sampler are what you would have heard as a fly on the wall during my writing sessions and what you’ll experience if you come see me live. The broken-down, acoustic setting is always my favorite and by far the most comfortable musical space for me. I’m sure I communicate that through the music somehow.

NT: For your new album I Know A Secret, what drove your decision to work with producer Monroe Jones again?

Owens: Not only are Monroe and his family like family to me, but because we’ve worked on so many projects together over the years, we have gotten the collaboration process down. We know how to read each other and tell each other the truth, and we enjoy creating music together. I’ve been doing music long enough to know how rare such partnerships are. My ultimate goal for I Know A Secret was twofold – to return to the organic musical elements Monroe and I explored on my earliest projects and to rediscover that incredibly honest place from which I used to write before an awareness of the music business caused me to over think. I had a sense that rediscovering would be best done by returning to work with the person I trusted most to help me navigate music. I think it was a good move.

NT: With I Know A Secret being your 8th full-length studio album, you’ve officially released half of your catalog under a label and half as an independent artist. In your experience, what’s been some of the main differences between the two?

Owens: Great question! There are definitely upsides and downsides to both. The advantage of having a record label is the built-in team and resources that come with that model. There’s a marketing team who sets up the record, and though the artist offers input, his/her job is mainly to follow the pre-determined plan. As an indie, I often find the challenge of wearing the artist hat, business hat, and marketing hat overwhelming. On the other hand, as an independent artist, I get to do exactly what I want creatively. I’m free to write and perform music I’m passionate about. That in itself is motivation enough to continue my musical journey.

NT: In addition to new music, you’ve also been working on a book project for release early next year. What can you tell us about it in advance?

Owens: I can tell you that writing books is a heck of a lot harder than writing records, at least for me. But it was worth it. My co-author, Andrew Greer, and I have just turned in our manuscript, and it feels great to know we’ve conquered! The book is called Transcending Mysteries: Who is God and What Does He Want From Us? and it sounds a bit more scholarly than it is. We use stories from the Bible and stories from our own lives to discover who the God of the Old Testament is, and to explore how He is still relevant to us today.