Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

05 MAY, 2009

(R)evolutionary Record: The Darwin Song Project


Under house arrest by art and science, or what evolution has to do with independent music.

You may have forgotten Charles Darwin’s birthday — he turned 200 in February — but you still have a chance to commemorate it. Recently, Neil Pearson, owner of Fish Records and director of the UK’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival, persuaded 8 of Britain’s finest singer-songwriters to visit Darwin’s farm house. Little did they know he’d lock them inside for one week and have them create an album from scratch, dedicated to the life and work of the eminent evolutionist.

What has emerged is a juicy mix of storytelling and incredible talent, dubbed the Darwin Song Project.

British singer/songwriter and multinstrumentalist Jez Lowe, for instance, found inspiration in Darwin’s personal affairs: His wife, Emma, with whom he never seemed to agree, always wanted to spend more time with her husband, who spent countless hours away from Emma on his work, Voyage of The Beagle. They differed on many levels, particularly in the clash between Emma’s belief in God and Charles’ evolutionary theory. Lowe writes,

Where’ve you been, your tea’s been in the oven. Come home now.

Other artists include Rachael McShane, Stu Hanna, Emily Smith, Chris Wood, Mark Erelli, Karine Polwart and Krista Detor — and they seem to have had a blast collaborating. Catch their reflections on the experience here and here.

Originally created for a live concert at Theatre Severn in March, the music from the project will be released as an album this summer. The group will also reconvene to perform at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival in late August.

Stay tuned on the project’s website.

Update: The album is now out, and it’s every bit as fantastic as we’ve come to expect it to be. Grab a copy.

Julian Dominic carries a pocket notebook and 0.3 pen everywhere; continuing to record, research and repeat almost everything he sees, hears and tastes on the road.

27 APRIL, 2009

Monday Music Muse: Haley Bonar


What Dolly Parton has to do with today’s hippest indie rock scene.

Minnesota-based singer-songwriter Haley Bonar is a fascinating intersection of indie rock, pop-punk and folk. Channeled in a sweetly melodic voice, her lyrical sensibility flows from playfully light to deeply insightful in the stroke of an acoustic chord.

She’s part Aimee Mann, part Neko Case, part your favorite NPR Live session. And unpeggably novel at the same time.

If Haley’s voice sounds familiar, you may have caught her doing back vocals for another indie favorite of ours, Andrew Bird. But her latest solo album, Big Star, is a force all its own. Our top track: Better Half.

Among the singer-songwriter’s musical feats is a stride-stoppingly excellent cover of Dolly Parton’s Jolene.

And bonus points to Haley for her gig on our long-established favorite, Daytrotter, where you can snag the entire session for free.

20 APRIL, 2009

Monday Music Muse: Brain-Picking Ghost Away


What Radiohead and Japanese cuisine have in common, or why the future of the music business is in the hands of those who just love making it.

Today, we’re doing something a little different — we’re picking the brains of an indie band we love, Ghost Away, whom you may remember from encounters past. Their music is part Radiohead, part Byrne/Eno, part Beck, part experimental recording project unlike anything you’ve heard before.

And it doesn’t hurt that Eric Haag (vocals, guitar, keys, laptop) and Brian Medlin (vocals, keys, drums) are two incredibly smart, forward-thinking guys, either. 


You were among those few progressive artists to “pull a Radiohead” and give your albums away as free downloads online. What was your reasoning?

Brian: The idea was to get as many people as possible to hear the record. We’re very proud of it. It being our first record, we wanted to give people an excuse to check it out. Everyone is constantly being bombarded with new music on the internet. So I think people need an excuse to check something out for the first time.

Eric: Also, we produced it entirely on our own, out of our own pocket, recorded in practice spaces and living rooms, not expensive studios. We have released stuff through labels with other bands, them paying for the studio time and helping to promote it, but this was different. It started as a side-project. A just-for-fun kind of thing. We had been working on it for years, and just wanted to get it out there. We probably discussed this for about 5 minutes. We knew that giving it away for free would get it to the most people, and there was really no need to shop it around. If we had released in on a label, they probably would have been able to help promote it, of course, but we were impatient and just wanted to do it ourselves.


Possibly the toughest question to ask any music fanatic: What’s your all-time favorite album? Why?

Brian: This is a hard question, one I can’t truely answer. I can tell you that Radiohead is probably my favorite band. And I would have to pick Radiohead’s OK Computer. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s my favorite of theirs or it’s their best. It’s just the one album that comes to mind simply because it’s the album that got me into them. I loved it when it came out, and I still love it today. It’s a personal classic album to me, and I’m sure to many other people.

Bob Dylan is another one of my favorite artists. It’s just really hard to narrow down your favorites to one thing they’ve done. It’s really all about their entire body of work.

Eric: Yeah, I feel the same way. I have never been a good list-maker or favorite-picker. I agree Radiohead is one of the best bands out there, but it’s not because of one particular album, it’s their depth and breadth that make them who they are. For me it was Kid A that really made me notice them, and by the time Hail to the Thief came out I was practically salivating for it. But, can I say any of those are my all-time favorites? I don’t know. I feel like that question tends to imply that the album itself was genius in it’s vision. So I guess Kid A is probably my pick.

I am totally into the idea of rock band renouncing rock music and doing something else. I can completely relate to that.

And some of those songs are so hard to understand how they arrived there, which is a beautiful thing.

Anyway, other albums that I feel almost as much love for are Demon Days by the Gorillaz and Beck’s Guero. Also, David Byrne’s Lead Us Not Into Temptation, and Phrenology by the Roots. All of those would be in consideration, but can any really top Kid A? Probably not.


If your music was a type of ethnic cuisine, what would it be? Elaborate.

Eric: Well, it’s not Ukrainian. We don’t sound like cabbage and pierogies. And not Spanish, cause we’re just not sexy enough. Not Indian, because that would imply it was colorful and playful and fun. And we haven’t done much like that yet.

Maybe our music is Japanese. Siberia is at least. It’s cold and raw, but it’s also got some spicy beef in there. We are hoping to make a Mexican album next.


Eric, your “day job” is graphic designer. Do you find any overlap in the creative processes of design and music? Which one gives you more “flow” – you know, the kind of work you get completely absorbed in, time stops, you forget to eat, drink, sleep?

Eric: Well, they both do that. The best stuff tends to happen when you get in that zone. When I was in art school, that definitely happened all the time. But now, more and more, design is just a day job and it’s not something I stay up late doing just out of passion. It’s commercial art, after all, and not really about personal tastes as much. I will stay up late doing it if I have to meet a deadline, but otherwise, I pour most of that kind of energy into my music. It is now the thing that makes me lose sleep and skip meals and and forget to take my dog on a walk.

When I’m working on my own writing lyrics or writing a new song, or trying to make some beat on the computer, it happens a little. But when we get together, it’s even worse. We sometimes stay out until 4 or 5 in the morning, just messing around with stuff, and I’m not someone who will just stay out that late for no good reason. We’re not teenagers anymore.

But when you get wrapped up in it, time just flies by. When things just start to come out, you have to take advantage of that energy. In that way, all creative things are like that.

You have to learn to let yourself get absorbed in it until you get that “flow.” It is so much better than sitting in your apartment beating your head against the wall.


It’s all fun and games until someone goes broke: What’s your prediction about the future of the music industry and its business model?

Brian: Well, being musicians, I guess we’re a little uncomfortable with that question. Well, not uncomfortable, but we just don’t spend much time thinking about that. We all know that it’s nearly impossible to make money as a band right now. It seems like the industry is being turned on its head.

We had a friend tell us recently that he thinks there are only like 5 bands out there making any profit off of what they do. That is not to say you can’t survive, breaking even.

Eric: But making money is a whole other thing, and apparently that doesn’t really happen anymore. If it every really did at all. It is harder and harder to make money off of recordings. Even those that cost $500,000 to make.

I don’t think hard-format music will ever completely vanish, though. Vinyl is on the rise again. It’s nice to hold something in your hands. It makes it feel more valuable.

But, we all know, that it probably won’t be a mainstream thing anymore. Pop stars won’t be able to count on selling a million records anymore. It just won’t happen. Live music will probably continue to be the best way to make money as recordings become more and more devalued. Bands have more and more ability to make and distribute their own music without the help of a label. But, labels will stick around. For real bands, maybe they’ll pay for studio time in exchange for a percentage of live profits, and not expect to make much off of the actual recorded music. For pop stars and the like, they’ll pay for expensive recordings with the hope that they can license it for commercial use and continue to sell out huge venues.

Anyway, I’m just rambling. I really have no idea. We have one foot in the industry but don’t really like to speculate too much. Brian spends almost all his time around other musicians, spending as much of half of his time lately out on the road. He says it’s not a subject that comes up much. We just think about making it. Not really selling it.

To simplify things, though, it may help to say that the music industry will always be people making music and trying to make a living off of it. It will be paid for one way or another.

Artists will have an increased ability to peddle their own wares, but there will always be the salesmen of the world around to help sell it. Who knows what the exact methods will be.


Thanks, guys. Pleasure having you. Rock on — hope to see you on Coachella or SXSW stage soon.

You can catch Ghost Away on MySpace, snag their albums for free on their website, and follow them on Twitter for a glimpse inside the minds of incredible talent.

16 APRIL, 2009

Lynching Moby


The antidote to selling out, or what a 6-year-old has to do with a Beatles reunion.

Despite a certain eponymous equation, we like Moby. The man is a solid live performer, a smart businessman, and just a nice guy who, like us, likes tea and lowercase. And his is new video, Shot In The Back of The Head, makes us like him even more — because it was directed by none other than David Lynch, and done so brilliantly.

Somehow, in 3 minutes and 15 seconds, Lynch manages to unleash all his neo-Renaissance personas — film director, screenwriter, producer, painter, cartoonist, composer, and sound designer. The video is part Mulholland Drive, part German Expressionism, part reckless 6-year-old on the run with a black crayon.

The song itself, a dreamy instrumental departure from Moby’s usual commercially licensable fare, is a free download on Moby’s website. It comes from the forthcoming album Wait For Me, out June 30th.

As unlikely as the Lynch-Moby pair may be, the two already crossed paths at Lynch’s Change Begins Within benefit earlier this month. (Yep, same one where the closes thing to a Beatles reunion took place.)

And given Lynch’s history of casting musicians in his films (Sting in Dune, David Bowie and Chris Isaak in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Billy Ray Cyrus in Mulholland Drive), we won’t be too surprised to see a Moby cameo in Lynch’s forthcoming My Son, My Son, What Have You Done, or maybe even a surprise one in the already-in-pre-production King Shot, out later this year.

Plus, there does seem to be a running theme there with all the shooting.