This week on Music City Roots, we have a cracking lineup for you at The Factory, including Amy LaVere, Rachael Davis, Nicole Atkins, and Mike Farris, all performing rocking sets for your ears.
About the artists:
Movies that claim to be “based on a true story” are often a loose interpretation, and this concept record, Runaway’s Diary, is a bit like that. I really did run away from home, if only for a few days, and parts of this song diary come from those honest emotions and true events. But I wanted these songs to flow like good film, like my daydreams do, so I took a storyteller’s liberty here and there. My hope is that this collection is an all-encompassing escape for the listener; a chance to runaway for 45 minutes and get lost in a good story.
In tenth grade my friend Becky and I decided on a whim to just split. Our friend Jenny drove us downtown to the Detroit bus station and we went to Chicago. We slept in the big train station where we were approached a number of times by what I’m sure were pimps wondering if we needed “work.” We definitely looked the part of teenagers ready to find trouble, and after a couple of nights we were caught and taken by paddy wagon to Juvenile Hall and then flown home. It was an adventure, and fortunately it had a safe and happy ending. Not every runaway gets so lucky.
In 2009 I was invited to play an opening run for an artist named Seasick Steve. His life story is full of hobo adventure. He ran away at 14, hopped trains, played music and had a million interesting jobs and stories to tell. After recounting some of his vagabond stories I thought how I would have loved to have him guide me through the ways of being a real drifter, had I not been caught in that Chicago train station. His stories made it seem romantic. Knowing Steve, he would have eventually steered me home and so my daydream turned into the song “Rabbit.” It opens the record, and I see it as something of a foreshadowing in the storyline.
The cover songs stitch together and round out the storyline. “Where I Lead Me” brings a little fun and defiance to the drifter in our story, when she’s feeling free and empowered and isn’t yet homesick or hungry. “How” struck me at once as a song always appropriate at some point in just about any story’s plot, and “Dark Moon” comes at the moment she’s realizing that there is always a dark side.
My filmmaker friend Mike McCarthy wrote “Lousy Pretender,” which I tried to include on my last record, Stranger Me, but couldn’t make it fit. It seems to settle better with this collection of songs – perhaps it’s a bit ambiguous in its literal place in the storyline, but this is where the listener gets to decide who plays the cheating wife.
I’m sure now that when taking that trip to Chicago I was really running to something not away from something. My home life wasn’t tragic – some parts were just sad and unsatisfying. My parents had recently divorced, my sister was angry and in trouble, and school bored me to tears. Most of my friends were lost souls experimenting with drugs (I am not excluded on this one count), skipping class (well, this one too), getting pregnant (thank goodness, not this one) and nothing seemed to be happening. As a matter of fact, I believe all of them stayed near that small Michigan town and now have nice families and regular jobs. At times that life seems desirable, but my nature is too restless. I wouldn’t last.
The song “Big Sister” is written from a child’s perspective. When we were young my sister and I fought like animals and I thought she was the meanest thing on Earth. She seemed cruel, sometimes abusive and was a vacuum for my parent’s attention. Today, my sister is amazing. We’re close, and our teenage years are water under the bridge. She’s also an artist – now that I understand her better, I know she felt things in our childhood with an artist’s sensibilities and was in a lot of pain.
Last Rock’n’Roll Boy To Dance falls in with the theme of a drifter’s restlessness and recognizes the restlessness in another. The Last Rock’N’Roll Boy to Dance is someone behaving in a way that embodies reckless abandon with indifference to the judgments about the common cool kid at any rock club.
“Snowflake” is the most honest song here. It’s my perspective, in my language and gives an accurate account of what went through my mind in the act of leaving. It’s kind of like my version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I moved away from home for good at 17. I briefly quit school, later finishing at night school while working at various restaurants. I saved my money and moved to L.A., but I couldn’t find a job – 17 days later I asked my mom to wire me some money to get back to Michigan. I left again at 19 and moved to Louisiana, then Nashville, Ocean City and Orlando. I eventually made it to Memphis, which I now call home – but I tour more than I’m there, and it satisfies my nature.
I wrote “Self Made Orphan” in the middle of a terrible crush. The desire to be connected to my crush was so powerful that I was sincerely terrified. I was trying to convince myself that I didn’t want to love or to be loved in any kind of needy way. I was so distracted by this man that my brain twisted every song on the radio to be about us. The matters of the heart scare me more than anything, and actually, the entire record was recorded under this duress. Anyway, I gave the song to the character in my daydream. I put her out on a sidewalk with a transistor radio and let her try to convince herself that she was happy with what was around her. Of course, through the writing of the song I knew I was going to have to get brave and take a chance — run to something — and I’m so grateful I did.
When I was a kid, my mother once said, “You could drop Amy naked in the middle of New York City with one dollar and she’d walk out clothed with a hundred.” Naturally this is one of my favorite things she ever said about me. I try to buy into it as I roll around the world. At times I am running away from a bad experience and other times racing to what I know will be a good show or a chance to see some friends. And when I am in the van traveling down the road, this is my favorite time of the day – I like to turn on a record and run away in the story, lose myself in the daydreams the music conjures. This record is for daydreaming.
When Rachael Davis first opened her mouth to sing she had clear tone, sharp control, an extensive range and a keen understanding about the nature of a tune, which were all unusual for a two-year-old. At five-years-old she learned to sing harmony to the mountain songs her mother sang to her, at eight she earned five dollars for her first paying gig with the family band Lake Effect. At nine-years-old Rachael took up piano and started writing the songs that would ultimately prime her for her future as a songwriter. At twelve she took her first guitar lesson, at fourteen she began performing without her parents. At fifteen, sixteen and seventeen-years-old Rachael was writing songs that laid bare wisdom which widely exceeded her years. When Rachael was eighteen her father put his Bart Reiter banjo in her hands and taught her how to play claw hammer banjo. Rachael will joke that by doing this, her father had cursed her for life, but the reality is that he had allowed his daughter to discover her first devastating love in the lilting splendor of a well played old-timey tune. At twenty Rachael recorded and released her first album “Minor League Deities” that was a collection of the songs she had been writing during her teenage years. The album won critical accolades in the acoustic music scene and acclaim among folk music listeners. The year after “Deities” was released Davis took her song and dance from the comfort of her Midwestern upbringing to the roar of the east. She made a place for herself in Boston, Massachusetts where she found good friends, reticent success and new influences that would catapult her into the next stage of songwriting. Coming into her own as she played for passers by on the city’s sidewalks and subway platforms Rachael started drawing musical inspiration from sources that weren’t in her parents’ substantial vinyl collection. She was discovering new artists with new sounds and new songs all on her own. Whether they were contemporary sounds that the world at large was hearing for the first time, or they were the classics that Davis was encountering for the first time. Rachael found sanctuary in basement level record stores and Boston’s premier acoustic music clubs. She fell in love with the voices of Patty Griffin, Aoife O’Donovan [Crooked Still] and Deb Talan [The Weepies]. Rachael began to listen with a discerning ear to the songwriting of Gillian Welch and Greg Brown, got a few performance tips from stage veterans like Vance Gilbert and Cheryl Wheeler and even got the guided tour, a time, or two, from Josh Ritter, who was a local at that time, and indie rock’s parade float princess, Mary Lou Lord. These influences and experiences set a heavy hand on the artist that Rachael is today.
Because Davis has been swayed by so many different types of music her style is difficult to file and will not languorously rest amid broader musical genres. Rachael’s slant on acoustic music can aptly be explained by a mixed cassette tape that her father played during her early childhood in the family’s Chevy Cavalier station wagon “Iggy”. On one side of the cassette was the soundtrack for the film The Big Chill on the other side was John Hartford’s “Aeroplane”. Countless hours of riding and listening during such a critical period for a receptive child had a lasting impression and thus created Davis’ very own category of acoustic music that she amorously calls ‘Motown-Banjo’.
In the time of her 10 year solo career Rachael has released 4 albums including one collaboration with the Lansing, Michigan based American-roots band Steppin’ In It and one live record with long-time musical partner Brett Hartenbach [Daniel Johnston] that came out of a live radio show recorded in Breman, Germany in May of 2004. Davis has lent her voice to countless other recordings including tracks for film, television and guest vocals on other records.
A neon noir tour de force of hi-def late-night pop, Slow Phaser marks Nicole Atkins’ most ingenious and indelibly modern collection to date. Produced by Tore Johannson – with whom she partnered on her now-classic 2007 debut, Neptune City – the album is a milestone for the acclaimed singer/songwriter, her restless creativity fully realized via the addition of some surprising colors to her already diverse paintbox. Songs like the poptastic “Girl You Look Amazing” and the sultry “Red Ropes” positively swirl with day-glo danceability, the bright hues setting Atkins’ distinctive creative voice in a brilliant and undeniable new light. Bittersweet yet life affirming, Slow Phaser is Nicole Atkins at her confident and unpredictable best – spirited, sexy, and determinedly forward thinking.
“I wanted to make something that no one’s ever heard before,” she says, “including myself.”
A charismatic and committed live performer, Atkins followed 2011’s adventurous Mondo Amore with a long year on the road. Upon her return, the New Jersey-based artist began to rethink her overall approach. Atkins went on creative walkabout, visiting various musician friends across the country and starting a productive collaboration with veteran drummer/producer Jim Sclavunos (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Cramps, Teenage Jesus & The Jerks). The two clicked immediately, penning three songs on the very first day they set to work.
“Jim really helped me articulate a lot of what I was feeling,” she says. “He helped me make the things I was writing sound more like when I just wrote songs for myself. He taught me a lot about writing… again.”
Luckily – or perhaps not – she was in Memphis when Hurricane Sandy wreaked its havoc on the Jersey Shore and her familial home.
“It was awful,” she says. “The whole first floor was flooded, we didn’t have power for 18 days. Everything is pretty much back now, but its different. Everybody in the town aged a lot this year.”
As she pondered her next move, fate rang long distance. Hearing of her recent travails, her old producer Tore Johansson – known for his work with Franz Ferdinand, The Cardigans, and many others – invited Atkins to come record at his residential Malmö, Sweden studio.
“He said, ‘As soon as you can get here, get here,’” she says. “It was the perfect double whammy. Here was someone who was going to help me make my record and give me a place to live.”
Atkins packed up two years of songs, poetry, and journals, not to mention the hundreds of beat-based musical ideas stored on her iPhone. With Johansson’s able assistance, she devised a compelling new sonic approach, melding psychedelic energy, prog rock adventurism, after hours disco ambience, and the raw emotional purity of the finest country soul. Atkins stripped her traditional instrumentation to its core – Johansson handled bass duties, joined by The Cardigans’ Lars-Olaf Johansson on guitar, keyboardist Martin Gjerstad, and Asbury Park’s own Sam Bey behind the drum kit – placing considerably more emphasis on electronics than on her previous recordings.
“It sounds large but not cluttered,” she says. “We only used four instruments and tracked everything live. Instead of layering on a bunch of strings and horns and bells, the idea was to try to make everything have such complex melodies that they fit together like a puzzle. Every little bit counts.”
The result is remarkably vivid and varied, with songs like the opening “Who Killed The Moonlight?” blazing with transcendent pop hooks and floor-filling rhythms unlike anything Atkins has done before. She further pushed her songwriting by penning a series of wry, candid songs casting a mordant eye at pretentious boyfriends (“It’s Only Chemistry”), ponderous hipsters (“Cool People”), and the endless highway that is her perpetual home (“Gasoline Bride”). Slow Phaser comes to its poignant emotional close with “The Worst Hangover” – replete with images of shattered disco balls glittering on the storm swept Jersey shoreline – and the sparse, powerful “Above As Below,” which finds our heroine alone at sea, “surrendering to the void, just me, seagulls, and the gods.” A committed believer in the enduring power of the album-as-art form, Atkins embraced a classically tripartite sequencing inspired by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s notorious psychotropic western, El Topo.
“When it starts out, the protagonist is really cocky and sure of himself and makes terrible decisions without thinking about the repercussions,” she says. “In the second part, he has everything taken away and is really put in his place. Then, in the end, he accepts it and tries to find spiritual meaning in order to be a better person.”
Atkins plans to release Slow Phaser on her own Oh’Mercy! Records, an assertion of ownership that embraces her ever fervent fanbase, who helped fund the project through a successful PledgeMusic campaign. In addition, the always ambitious artist plans to indulge her defiantly prog dreams with the most theatrical live performances of her career thus far.
“I’m going to wear a cape and shoot lasers out of my hands,” she says. “Really.”
Inventive and irresistible, Slow Phaser positively radiates with idiosyncrasy and a palpable sense of fully empowered musical discovery.
“It’s taken me a while to figure out who I really am,” Nicole Atkins says. “Musically, and as a person. It’s constantly changing. I’m not just this one character. I’m an artistic person trying to figure s**t out.”
In music there are those special artists that seem to transcend genre and defy categorization. From time to time one hears a voice that can stop you dead in your tracks and shake your very foundation to the core. Mike Farris is that artist and he has that voice.
In June of 2007 Farris released the critically acclaimed Salvation in Lights which married old time roots gospel sounds with his own unique arrangements that were mainly inspired by New Orleans, Stax and the blues. The music was both spiritual and personal for Mike as it dealt with individual struggle but it also had a commonality that music fans from all walks of life could enjoy. In 2008 he won the Americana Music Association’s “New & Emerging Artist of the Year” award and started to make a name for himself as a dynamic performer.
In 2008 and 2009 Mike Farris and his Roseland Rhythm Revue performed monthly residencies at Nashville’s’ Station Inn and called it “Sunday Night Shout!” The shows had audiences that consisted of people from all walks of life and the goal was to make the crowd feel “excited, delighted and loved.” The official live recording of the Station Inn shows, Shout! Live, was released in 2009 and won the Gospel Music Association’s Dove Award for “Best Traditional Gospel Album of the Year” in 2010.
When the “1,000 year flood” hit Middle Tennessee in May of 2010 it became obvious to Mike that he needed to do something to help those who were affected. He gathered up some of the finest musicians in town including: Sam Bush, Ketch Secor & Gill Landry (Old Crow Medicine Show), Kenny Vaughan (Marty Stuart), Byron House (Robert Plant) and members of his Roseland Rhythm Revue. Six songs were recorded in 6 hours at Nashville’s Downtown Presbyterian Church and the music was a beautiful blend of old time country, gospel and blues with Mike leading the “Cumberland Saints” from the pulpit. In October of that year the EP was released as The Night The Cumberland Came Alive with partial proceeds donated to the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.
With recording near completion on his next studio release Mike Farris continues to amaze audiences whenever he plays solo or with any one of his different configurations from the stripped down Cumberland Saints to the full 9 piece Roseland Rhythm Revue. His voice connects and mesmerizes in such a way that it doesn’t matter if the songs are his own compositions or ones sung 200 years ago. As Mike puts it “this music – it’s so beyond us, we only perpetuate it. We are just cooks in the kitchen.” If so Mike Farris is one “cook” with an immediate voice.