“It’s hard to choose between messing with knobs and dancing” a talk with Michelle Miears

 

This is the latest in a series of articles about some of Houston’s most fascinating female members of our music community. I’m not sure I meant for it to become a series but what began with wanting to showcase people who live lives in and around our community, juggle responsibilities, manage what often seem like conflicting goals, led me to the women you’ve read about here at Cathedral Records.

I’m inspired by people who live with their feet firmly planted in different worlds; musician and parent, spouse and business owner, band member and athlete, songwriter and business executive. That duality and those seemingly diametrically opposing forces are where the magic happens and where I find reassurance that my own ambitions are not impossible to achieve.

So with that, I give you this article about Michelle Miears. Her debut solo EP, “Who Will Save You” is amazing but you probably already know that from the incredible love she is receiving both in the press and from audiences who have been fortunate enough to see her perform.

This article, I hope, will shed a little light on the lady behind that powerful voice and those incredible arrangements. Her story is one of balance, of persistence, ambition, bravery, and certainly talent.

Her musical journey began, like that of so many of us. Her grandparents were avid musicians who performed regularly both on stage as part of multiple bands and in their homes for their children and grandchildren. One of her first memories of being attracted to commercial music was as a young child riding in a car with her mother as Enya came on the airwaves.

By 10, melodies were becoming imprinted in her mind and one of her first musical fascinations arrived on radio and TV in the form of three talented brothers from California, Hanson.

“I formed a little ‘band’ with my best friend and we would write songs while jumping on the trampoline day-dreaming about making it big” Miears explained.

The ambition and determination that have marked much her evolution as an artist began to take root early on as Michelle described her feelings at the time, “I took myself very seriously inside and I really thought this could happen for me and it was around this time that I taught myself piano.”

Piano led to flute in junior high band which she continues to play this day. During her high school days in band, Michelle even participated in the drum line challenging herself by competing and performing with players with many more years of experience. She cites the challenge as one of the “best and most rewarding times of (her) life.”

This notion of a sense of reward and empowerment through challenge and perseverance is a common refrain throughout her life and musical journey.

As the discussion turns to her influences she cites a long list of varied artists, two of the first being Paramore’s Hayley Williams as well as Imogen Heap.

“The first artist that made feel completely gutted inside (in a good way) and made me desperate to perform was Hayley Williams. I was living in California listening to (Paramore and Imogen Heap) on repeat. These two women taught me how to sing.”

A couple of start-stop band experiences led to an opportunity to join her brother’s band where she found her place within the word of electronic music.

“I had spent a lot of time listening to a few electronic bands in the past but in working with ZolotiNatioN I dug deeper into it. From that point, I felt like stylistically my voice fit better in this world than the pop-punk world that I had previously day-dreamed about.”

Shortly thereafter, hungry for a new band after ZolotiNatioN ended, BLSHS was born which further deepened her love of electronic music, composition, production, and expanded her horizons as an artist and performer. It was during a lull in the band’s activity that Michelle decided to take the massive step of writing, producing, releasing, and ultimately performing an EP of solo music.

When asked about the inspiration for the songs she doesn’t really have any artist or bands to rattle off.  Rather, her muse is born from the emotions and reflections of past relationships, her role in them, and how they have shaped her life and outlook moving forward.

“The songs on this EP were inspired by my own self-exploration and discovery of my relationship patterns, past and present, and my tendency to be codependent. I have a habit of assuming the role of caretaker, so far. Unfortunately I tend to measure my self-worth through feeling needed.”

These stark self-observations belie the powerful, passionate woman who commands the stage but give further insight into the high-wire act she walks between seemingly opposite forces: co-dependent and insecure but at the same time masterful and confident; inexperienced as a solo artist but having the focus and sheer force of will to craft an entire stage show while teaching herself an entirely new medium of performance in using Ableton Live.

The songs on “Who Will Save You” are meticulously crafted with a polished production that mask the fact that they were composed on an old keyboard with initial demos recorded not in Logix but on her mobile phone.

By day, she sits at a desk managing accounts for a staffing agency but by night Michelle becomes MIEARS as she anxiously races home, leaving her “civilian” life behind and embraces the world she much prefers, a world where “anything is possible.”

When the time came to perform the songs found on “Who Will Save You,” Michelle had a decision to make. She could perform alone, singing to her pre-recorded tracks or she could create something else, something more. The decisions to include a live drummer as well as a keytar were born of the same kind of duality that has defined so much of her musical journey.

“I don’t have the best self-esteem at times. I think the idea was originally conceptualized from my fear that people would be bored watching little ol’ me on stage by myself. I was actually terrified at the thought of being on a stage all by myself. The thought sounded very exposing and I couldn’t think of a more vulnerable position to be in.”

These words sound surprising coming from a woman with such masterful command of the stage as well as the creative vision needed to arrange the songs in such a manner that would allow space for live drums and in-the-moment performance using her cherished key-tar. “I love my keytar. I feel naked without it!”

That key-tar might as well be Thor’s hammer. As soon as she puts it on, the shy young lady I met in a parking lot outside Rock 4 Recovery becomes the incendiary performer who takes the stage night after night.

When asked how her busy performance schedule has been and how the process has evolved she expresses nothing but enthusiasm. The insecure, even shy young lady loses ground to the master craftswoman who values the kind work ethic that many fans or aspiring musicians may not realize are needed to reach the measure of their ambition.

“I’ve performed both with and without my drummer and I have received positive feedback in both circumstances. I am glad that I’m still pushing myself out there totally solo because it forces me to work on my confidence and stage presence.”

When the topic turns to Houston as a community Michelle’s passion is once again ignited. The environment’s collaborative and supportive nature that is often overlooked by outsiders is a huge source of inspiration.

“I am lucky to be emerging as a female solo artist at a time when there are so many other strong women surrounding me. I am so excited that there are women taking charge of the music scene like Mandy Clinton (of the Lories and Pearl Crush) who has a booking collective called DAMN GXRL which advocates for inclusiveness and diversity in the music scene. Teresa Vicinanza (Tee Vee) and Vicki Tippit (Black Kite) are pushing the boundaries of creativity and how an audience experiences live music. Black Kite recently wrapped up a series of immersive theater performances called Red House which completely blew my mind.”

Michelle quickly catches a breath and begins again:

“All three of these artists produce incredible music and I am a huge fan. Kam Franklin is touring Europe with her band, The Suffers, and taking on the globe one venue at a time. There are so many, it’s hard to name them everyone. These women are inspiring me daily with their creative journeys. I feel super empowered to be a woman in music and a woman in the Houston music scene right now.”

With the perspective and outlook Michelle has developed an audience may think her career is decades long when in fact Who Will Save You is her debut album (though the follow up is nearing completion). As I often say however, it’s not the number of years, it’s the number of miles and in Michelle’s case she’s logged enough to understand that the life of a musician, male or female, is not one to be entered into lightly.

While she can see no other life for herself because the thought of not pursuing her passion provides more pain than that of continuing and facing all struggles the road may bring, she is quick to offer both strong words of caution as well as a call to arms. (There’s that duality again)

“Being a musician requires a lot of time, work, dedication, and some thick skin. Somehow you have to force yourself beyond any doubt that you may feel. You have to put yourself out there, even when it’s scary and unsure of the outcome.”

Her advice to aspiring musicians?

“No matter what your age is, you can start any time. The time is now!”

Her words of encouragement ring as a sort of carpe diem, an anthem calling even the most trepidatious to step up to the microphone or piano or computer.

“Just take that first step. Whether it’s sharing a demo with a friend, finding a way to materialize the ideas in your head, learning to produce on your own in a DAW, learning to record at home with some basic equipment, learning an instrument or finally singing in front of people you have to take that jump!”
She concludes with a bit more self-reflection:

“I finally realized that every day I let slip by without taking another baby step is a day that I’ve lost at growing and being productive towards my dreams and passion.”

Oh and if that’s not enough to endear you Ms. MIEARS…she’s a Beatles fan…be still my beating heart. 🙂

 

 

Come on over baby, whole lotta cakin’ goin’ on…A Conversation with Renee Main

A community is comprised of individuals. Our beloved community includes more than just the folks on stage or behind the sound board. These people are fans, spouses, retailers, luthiers, friends, and everyone else.

These individuals all have their own passions, perspectives, and stories and from time to time I like to highlight them.

This time I got the pleasure to speak with Renee Main, a wonderful woman, mother, wife, passionate music enthusiast, and one of the most talented “cakers” you’re going to meet here in Houston.

Our conversation took several twists and turns as we discussed everything from her growing business to her gorgeous son, her marriage to Ronnie Main (also a dear friend of the Cathedral) and of course music.

I found our conversation to be truly fascinating and inspiring. Like many of us, she strives to balance relationships, a family, her business, and every challenge all those bring. I thoroughly enjoyed the insight into her life and approach to work and family.

I hope you all enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed preparing it and, in the true spirit of community, I encourage you ALL to think of her whenever you need baked goods….which should be OFTEN haha…you can NEVER have too many baked goods. Seriously…has anyone ever said “nah, I really don’t want yummy baked goods?” Hell no.

Tell me about your business. When did baking become something you began doing as a business as opposed to something you did for yourself and your family?

It’s funny calling it a “business”… perhaps, because to me it’s just a really fun hobby! Though, if you ask me that same question at 1 am as I’m cutting out tiny fondant bits, working into the wee hours of the morning after my son has gone to bed, THEN, it is “work”. Ha! “Renee, the ‘businesswoman.'” I just never really acknowledged a change in the process as it grew as a passion and business. I still mostly make them for family, friends and friends of friends, so perhaps not much has actually changed.

How long have you been doing it? What are your favorite recipes? Are you a mad scientist or do you go by “feel?”

I’ve always loved baking, even considered going to Pastry School when I was young… but, that went the way of my dreams to be a Forensic Scientist, a Veterinarian, a Marine Biologist and several other “I don’t- know-what-to-do-with-my-life-so-hopefully-I-can-just-marry-a-rich-rock star” ideas. My first decorated cake was for my brother (a dodgy looking turntable) in 2010…the cake that started it all.

I have a go-to shortbread cookie recipe that people really dig. As for everything else, I have Pinterest and Google to thank. Even when I come up with an idea, I always Google to confirm that it’s a good one and realize I’m not as original as I thought. Going by feel and smell are definitely my thing. I never set timers (unless it’s a scary new recipe). I can smell when a cake is done, as anyone who knows me can tell you, I don’t deal well with time restraints….living on Tennessee Time.

What inspired you to become so enthusiastic and artistic with your baking?

Growing up, I loved anything art and music related. I always felt that I wasn’t good enough at anything I tried to actively pursue. And in typical me style, if I thought I might fail at it, it wasn’t worth trying.  I used to spend hours sketching and doodling. All of my schoolwork had doodles in the margins. I always needed an artistic outlet, but it wasn’t until I found caking that I could apply what bit of talent I had with my love of food. Best thing about it, is even if it sucked, it’d be eaten anyway. Luckily, my family and friends have been so supportive and absolutely willing to eat my mistakes.

Was there a particular moment, a particular recipe you pulled off where you thought, “I’m really good at this!”?

When I really started getting into cake decorating and pushing myself, I had a few big moments that stood out. I ended up making it through to the video entry round for the first Cake Boss cake competition show. Around that time, I also won 1st place in a cake decorating competition for Country Woman magazine (Haha, the country woman that I am) and was featured in the magazine. Another boost for the ego, I managed to snag 2nd and 3rd place in a cake decorating competition. It was just a series of pretty fortunate events that gave me the confidence to stick with it. Can’t lie, having Shure share my microphone cake and The Zombie Research Society share my half dog from Return of the Living Dead probably surpassed the actual awards!

What are you most proud about? Was there a particular event/family member/recipe that you pulled off under a tight deadline, perhaps there was a lot of drama swirling around at the time…something that really sticks out….

Easily, the time I was able to provide a cake as a Sugar Angel for Icing Smiles. It’s an amazing organization that pairs children with serious illnesses and their siblings with volunteer bakers. When called upon, you get the opportunity to create a child’s dream cake. With hospital visits and ailments, sometimes just having a bit of fun and cake is just what the doctor ordered. The cake was Pokemon themed, for a 13 year old named Brayan. Seeing his reaction when he saw the cake, seeing that he was just a regular kid having a great birthday, meeting his wonderful family that welcomed us in for dinner and the most delicious Horchata, feeling the love and happiness that surrounded us, is something I will never forget.

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You just had a baby, bought a house, and moved…how to juggle all the hats you wear: mother, baker, wife, operations manager of the Main home, etc?

I drop a lot of balls. And the ones I catch are usually out of order, barely snagged between fingers or at the absolute last moment. At least, that’s the way it feels. I think, prior to having a kid, I truly valued my simple life. I finally got to a place where I had a job I enjoyed, Ronnie and I were having fun, and I lived a relatively stress-free life. I baked and danced in my kitchen for hours. Baking was my release, my brain shut off everything else and I just baked… and sang, while dancing poorly. Fast forward to life with a 14 month old and baking has become another big mess to clean up, gets stretched out over days instead of hours, and mom brain just never shuts off. I still truly enjoy it, I just can’t shut out the world like I used to. My sweet boy wants to be with me when I’m in the kitchen and I love that, but when I’m in a crunch for an order, a toddler throwing a tantrum while attached to my legs is the last thing I need. So, my late nights of caking have become even later nights. I am really looking forward to showing him the ways of cake in the years to come… or perhaps I’d be better served showing him the ways of dish washing. As difficult as doing any sort of work from home can be, I am extremely grateful that I can be home with him. I don’t want to miss a thing. As for the wife part, I have to admit that I feel like I drop that ball the most. Perhaps, it’s normal when you create a tiny human, but after 12 years of just us, I miss him. Caking takes my evenings with him away and that sucks, but we also need the money. Being a grown-up is tough.

I always tend to tie things back to music and songwriter. I love cooking as well, though I’m not much of a baker. For me, it’s very similar to music in that I love my tools (in the kitchen it’s knives, pans, oven/stove etc while in the studio guitars, mics etc) and the recipe is sort of the lead sheet guiding me in various directions but I like to put my own spin on things as if I were “covering” a song. I listen to music while I cook and I even get lyric ideas while I’m in the kitchen.

How about you? Where do your recipes come from? Do you listen to music while bake or is it a distraction? If you do, what are your favorite albums/artists for baking?

As Ronnie would say, “I’m too cautious.” It’s probably from a lack of confidence, but I usually like to start with a tried, well-rated, recipe before I start experimenting. I haven’t taken the time to learn the base recipes for different baked goods… I probably should, but I have a shit memory, so it’s just easier for me to look things up. I do enjoy cooking, as well. I am quicker to experiment there, because the science of baking isn’t necessary. I always listen to music when I cake. For the last couple of years, it’s been either my Amos Lee or Valerie June station on Pandora. It’s always folky music that I can sing and dance along to. The smooth sounds calm my caking nerves. I always hate whatever I’m working on along the way; nothing is ever as great as I think it can be while I work. It’s usually not until the borders and final decorations go on that I can step back and appreciate it (I say “appreciate” loosely… I’m usually still critiquing, stressing and nit picking).

What kind of prep do you do before going in the kitchen? Do you have any rituals or specific routines that you have to do before you “get in the zone?”

Usually, it’s a whole lot of pacing and bitching. I go in and out of the kitchen, overwhelmed with the task ahead of me. Scatter brained, I try to gather a few tools or ingredients while I huff about it. But, once I get going, with my music playing, I am “in the zone”. As long as Euen isn’t pulling at my apron strings, the rest of the world fades away and I cake.

Do you make up your own recipes? Where do you pull your inspiration from? Are there particular chefs that got you into this? Do you watch Food Network?

I love Food Network, currently watching it as I type. I have always liked Duff Goldman and his crew. Always seemed like a fantastic kitchen to work in. Can’t stand Cake Boss. I follow loads of amazingly talented cakers on Instagram and Facebook, that inspire me, and make me feel completely inadequate. Currently really enjoying seeing Cakes by Cliff and Yolanda Gampp’s work. I wish I could make-up my own recipes. While cooking, I can. Baking, not so much.

What is the process for someone when they decide they want to have you bake something? Is there a consultation where you help them figure out a design/style/flavor combination/etc?

Usually, I do all of the legwork via email or messenger. I will be the first to admit I am a victim of mom brain. I need every detail written down and quite honestly, I hate talking on the phone. So, it usually begins with “What did you have in mind? How many people does it need to feed?” Most people will start with “How much do you charge?” but until I know the number of servings and amount of detail involved, I can’t answer that. So once we have a general idea of theme and size, I get a quote and if confirmed, we finalize the details. If it’s a custom design, I will work up a sketch to help get the final details sorted. The most popular flavors are the classics like vanilla, chocolate, Red Velvet, marble, my personal fave Cookies & Cream and since I do a lot of kid’s birthdays, they tend to be safe bets for crowd-pleasing.

What separates you from grocery store bakeries?

I don’t get my cake layers from a factory or my icing from a bucket. My buttercream is made from real butter, powdered sugar and vanilla… that’s it. I use real ingredients, things I would allow my son to eat. There is nothing mass-produced, everything is handmade, I have to put in every bit of the effort from start to finish. It’s an edible piece of custom artwork.
14961296_10211545860870443_1939684879_n14962451_10211545861270453_155964264_n 14996402_10211545861110449_1275367474_n (YES…those are CAKES!)

What are some tips you can give people when they are trying to decide on what they may want for any given event?

Be realistic and open-minded. If you want to feed 10 people, a 5-tiered cake is probably not an option. If you’re on a tight budget, a highly ornate hand-piped design isn’t going to fit in it.  I don’t want cool cakes to be something for only the most special of occasions. I like to think I’m reasonably priced for the work and willing to work with a budget. The best creations come from trusting the artist to do what they do. I always feel like I do my best work when I’m told the general theme and likes and told, “I trust you, make it awesome.” I love being able to try new things and create a truly special cake.

There was a recent Facebook post shared by Jeff Klein of My Jerusalem where he gave a lot of credit to a mechanic shop in Austin that provides discounts to musicians in the area. As an independent business woman with a foot in the music community, where do you see non-music businesses in terms of playing a role in supporting that community or any community in general? Do you currently or anticipate in the future that you’ll actively market to musicians or to any other specific target audience? 

I offered to bake logo cookies for my husband’s band several times, but I think he thought it was a silly idea. I, on the other hand, think baked goods should be a part of any good marketing plan! Who needs another damned sticker, people won’t just toss a rockin’ cookie or cupcake in their back pocket to be washed and forgotten. I think every person and every business has a reason to celebrate, to share and to treat. I don’t have anything worked up, but would love some cool projects!

You are married to Ronnie Main – guitarist, GM at Guitar Center and a man who has been known to rock a kilt on more than one occasion.

As a musician myself, and having done more than one tour of duty in retail – I can attest to the challenges such a life can pose to a happy relationship and family.

Tell me a bit about how that’s been for you? How do you guys navigate all the time constraints involved with his and your schedules, shifting priorities? What do you say to people when it comes to how best to balance all the different parts of your life and making sure everyone is happy.

I think we did it right by waiting until out thirties for a baby. We spent our twenties going to shows several nights a week, did all the boozing, schmoozing and partying we could. Honestly, I can’t hang anymore. Even before we had Euen, I had become an old fuddy duddy. I’m glad we spent our twenties focusing on us and having the fun we could. It just sort of happened that Ronnie’s band fizzled out, and things settled down for us once the thirties rolled in. If Ronnie was out playing shows now, I know I’d be upset that I couldn’t make it or that we’d have to manage getting a sitter and so on. Though, I do really miss seeing him on stage, I can’t even recall the last show I went to. I do miss being surrounded by music… and nights out with the hubs. I think the most important thing is to support your spouse’s endeavors and hobbies. Sometimes it’s hard to be open to him spending the day skydiving when I’ve hardly seen him and need a wee breather from Euen, but I also know he works his ass off for us and he deserves the time to enjoy himself. I love that he is passionate about music and skydiving and that makes me passionate about it, too.

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You and Ronnie have what I think is an amazing story about how you met, your courtship, marriage and now enjoying your son. Tell me about it. When you look back what are your thoughts and favorite parts of it?

We met way back when, on my first Dell computer during freshman year of college. He sent me a message in an Alternative Music chat room on MSN…says he liked my name. I was all about meeting people from all over the place, the whole world had opened up to me and I was obsessed with chatting with new people (Sorry, real life friends, I would trash (all of them) for online ones). I always say he just harassed me in to loving him.

He had this bold, bright red Comic Sans font and he’d message one after another “ding-ding-DING!”  I had to turn off the sound on my messenger. He even said “love ya” after our first conversation… a bit much.

I lied and told him I didn’t have a webcam, but he turned his on and all I see is this giant, glowing white forehead, glasses and red hair, looking down as he typed. So, we chatted and phoned, but I couldn’t understand him so I would lie and say the connection was bad.

After a few months, he asked if he could come over and visit, I said yes, thinking “yeah right”. He wouldn’t be the first online pal to suggest meeting. He ended up getting a ticket, so had to get my parents to agree to having a strange, Scotsman stay with us. Luckily, they said yes and things weren’t crazy awkward when he arrived! I said “Love you” online, but couldn’t do it in person.

He actually brought an engagement ring and brought it with, but didn’t ask that visit because of my “Thank you” replies to his “love yous”. A few visits back and forth, an engagement and a wedding later, we started our amazing life together.

We have had our ups and downs, as any marriage does. But, thankfully loving him has been easy and the ups far outnumber the downs. We truly enjoy each other and had a solid 12 years of just us to build a sturdy foundation before shaking things up with a baby.

Getting pregnant was a surprise to say the least. We were thinking it just wasn’t in the cards and were pretty ok with that. I had an amazing pregnancy and delivery, and couldn’t have done it without Ronnie’s amazing love and support. I keep saying that I thought I couldn’t love him anymore than I did, but then I saw him as a father and my love grew exponentially. He is an amazing man, husband and father and I thank my lucky stars he’s mine.

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Are there bands that are must-see for you even if you’ve seen them a dozen times?

I don’t think you can see too much of a band you enjoy. I would love to see Amos Lee again; he put on an amazing show. I’ve also been aching to see Karnivool and Biffy Clyro. I really hope they’ve got Texas in their next international tour plans!

Who are some of your favorite artists – local or otherwise?

I’ve been in a long folk kick, so I am really enjoying Amos Lee, Ray LaMontagne and Valerie June lately (along with bands of the like that come up on Pandora). I love me some Blind Melon, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull to name a few. I feel so out of the local scene, it’s a shame.

Finally – and everyone gets this question – Beatles or Stones?

Definitely, Beatles.

To contact Renee for all your baking needs you can find her on Facebook or Instagram. Or, you can shoot her a direct email.

Remember – support local artists of all kinds, all the time.

Be Well and Kind,
Jason

 

“Capturing the Moment” A Conversation with Ashley Newman

As a songwriter, I think of my music as Polaroid snapshots of my mental/emotional/philosophical state of mind at any given moment.

Some writers write “story songs” about characters…think Billy Joel’s Brenda and Eddie from Scenes from an Italian Restaurant or Mellencamp’s Jack and Diane.

That’s not really the case with me. For better or worse, I write about myself. What can I say? I’m very self-involved, haha.

But really, for me, songs are like photographs in that they capture a moment and from a certain perspective, those moments become permanent, locked in time.

So with that in mind, I have the great pleasure of bringing you all a conversation with the talented Ashley Newman of Ashley Newman Photography. She recently relocated to Tuscaloosa from Houston and I had the chance to catch up with her to discuss everything from how things are going in her new Metropolis to what got her started in photography and what the future holds.

Jason – What got you into photography? When did you decide this is what you wanted to do?

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Ashley – I started photography as a teen. I had always been interested in preserving memories and photography just felt natural. Everyone has a story to tell and I believe photography is a special medium that can captur
e those moments in time. In 2005, my husband and I were married. We were on a budget and we hired a photographer that we thought would give us the best deal financially…when we got our images back we were sorely disappointed. It wasn’t the vision I had of my special day and my images were such poor quality I couldn’t order gift prints or pictures for my home. I felt robbed of a moment that I would never get back, but I learned a valuable lesson- and more importantly I began to see photography in a different light. When my husband and I had our first child, that’s when I committed to using the skills I had learned in college to take better photos. My children’s growth wasn’t something I was going to miss out on because of bad photography or a lack of knowledge. I officially launched my business in 2009 and have loved the growth process and working with families along the way. Once we had our third child, I decided it was time to go full-time with my business and stay home with my family. I have loved every moment of the memories I have been able to capture for myself and my clients since I first made the comittement. 

Jason – I feel a lot like that with my songwriting. I had always written, essays, poetry (yeah I was that guy) all in trying to express my “story” as you put it and I always gravitated towards music because it felt like such a special means of expression. Once I got my first guitar, I never looked back. I got into recording much in the same way you did in that I was frustrated with the quality of recordings I was getting from friends and studios charged so much for what I perceived to be so little.

Jason – What do you think sums up your professional outlook on photography?

Ashley – My motto is “Let’s tell a story together” and I really love that images can do that. When I am at a session I try to capture all the details- from smiles and tickles, to sweet baby fingers and even clothing details. I believe that art tells a story about who we are, and pictures capture special moments in time. I know that when you are looking for a photographer, you are trusting another person with your family memories. As a mother myself, I know your story is important. I work hard to make sure your session is stress-free and captures this season with your special, unique family. So let’s tell a story together! I am committed to authentically capturing your family and the city of Tuscaloosa. I want to tell your story, only the one that you can share, and I want to be the one to share that for years to come as we grow and change together.

Jason – I really relate to this and I love how you frame things in terms of telling a story together. I think when someone walks into a recording or writing session it’s very similar to what you describe here. It’s a matter of telling a story about who we are, where we are, what we feel and, like pictures, music can capture that moment. When you’re looking for a studio or for someone to help you with your music, you are definitely trusting them with an incredibly significant part of your life and soul.

So how’s Tuscaloosa treating you? What’s been the biggest change?

Ashley – Honestly, it has been the slower pace of life…but I don’t view it as a bad thing. Washley2e were ready for the change and I think we needed to slow down. We feel at ease here and comfortable with our new normal. It feels like home. Being from Texas, this hasn’t been a huge change for us. It’s being without connection and family that has been the most difficult transition. I am quickly finding that home town Tuscaloosa is friendly and inviting. I’ve already begun to get plugged into the community and it feels more and more like our home town every day. My biggest goal would be to meet new families and make new friends. Business-wise, I want to just shoot. I want the opportunity to explore the city more, to work with local families and to get out with my photography. I want to do something outside of me and outside of being a mom, while blessing other families. 

Jason – Musicians can always rattle off a million names when it comes to inspiration or what their music sounds like…”it’s like Radiohead but if Chuck D were producing it crossed Shoegaze and a touch of skater music.” Hahaha What about you? Who are your influences?

Ashley – It’s difficult to list just one, but classically speaking I enjoy the work of Man Ray and Sally Mann. In the 21st century, I adore the work of Erin Witowski, and Rachael Vanovan. 

 Jason – OK, million dollar question – Beatles or Stones?

Ashley – Stones…all the way.

 Jason – Seriously? You’re just messing with me now…

Ashley – no. I don’t like the Beatles…maybe it’s because I was raised on the Rolling Stones but that’s just how it is.

 Jasonyou know we can’t be friends anymore right?

Ashley – Your loss.

Jason – I’m not so sure anymore. ;-p

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Ashley Newman can be reached at her website – www.ashleynewmanphotography.com

or and you can follow her fascinating and tender blog at https://barryandashley.wordpress.com/

 

Q&A with Houston’s Own – David Elbert

David Elbert is one of Houston’s most talented guitarists and songwriters. I know this to be true because I’ve had the honor of calling him a best friend for over 20 years. We cut our teeth together and some of my fondest memories, musical or otherwise, include him. I humbly present to you Cathedral Records’ newest Q&A session with a dear friend of the Cathedral and one heck of a guitarist – David Freaking Elbert.

 

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You’ve been playing music for most of your life at this point. Tell me about how and why you started playing?
I grew up in a very musical family. My father, uncles and cousins all played guitar and my grandmother was a terrific pianist. If I had to really pinpoint why I started I think that it was a bit of hero worship for my oldest brother, Jeremy. He was a terrific singer, songwriter and guitar player who seemed to be able to play anything he got his hands on. He exposed me to more music than I thought possible and I certainly don’t think I would have ever picked up an instrument had it not been for him.

Tell me about your path from sitting at the edge of your bed to where are you are now…bands you’ve been in, what you’re currently working etc…

I’ve played in a number of bands and served a number of roles over the years. I’ve been both a lead guitarist and rhythm guitarist, I’ve been the singer, the bass player, I’ve even been a bad keyboardist in a band. Right now I’m working with some amazing musicians in a cover band called The Apple Scruffs. I also play lead guitar in a project called The Glass and I work with a band that I sing, play guitar and song write in called Fake Believe.

What are your main guitars and effects at this point? How did you come to start using these? What have you used in the past?

Like all guitar players I’ve bounced around a lot. For years I used a first year (Peavey) 5150 and I still love to play my ‘75 Marshall Plexi with a Les Paul or hot-rodded Strat. Right now I am using a custom made Telecaster-type guitar that I helped design and put together. My main amp is a boutique British style amp form a company out of Dallas called Jackson Ampworks. They do amazing stuff. Effects are always coming on and off my pedalboard. I use a few different boast, fuzzes, and delays. I couldn’t live without my Memory Man.

What are your thoughts on the Houston music scene? Being here for as long as you’ve been here, you’ve seen a lot, endured the whole “Austin is better” mentality, and have been performing regularly for years. How has the scene changed?

I’ve never been a part of the Austin scene, so I can’t really speak to it. I will say there is a history there that has been respected for a long time and I truly hope they hang on to that.  Houston’s strength in the world is our diversity. You can see a badass Tejano band, punk band, country band, rapper or indie band all playing the same weekend. One of my favorite things to do after a rehearsal is to walk down the hall of the rehearsal space I rent and listen to the drastically different artist all playing on the same night. I would love to see more venues play to that and put different genres on the same bill.

What is your favorite local artist or band out there right now?

There are several I could mention. I’ve been a huge fan of Hayes Carll since his first record and it’s great that he has made a national name for himself. It was so exciting to see The Sufers have a successful tour. To do it all without the support of a label speaks volumes about their talent.

What’s your favorite venue in town? What do you think makes a venue good for an independent artist or band? What do you look for when you’re trying to decide what venue to select for a gig?

My favorite venue is any venue is giving a stage to good acts. It’s always best if they have good beer too.

You’re a recording engineer too. Tell me about your background and education, software you prefer and a little about your philosophy in the studio.

I studied audio engineering under Les Williams (among other amazing professors) at San Jacinto College in the late 90s. They have an outstanding music school there and their recording program is one of Houston’s best-kept secrets. I worked at Sugar Hill for a little while and learned so much there.  Everyday that I got to be a second engineer for Andy Bradley or Dan Workman was a learning experience. Beyonce cursed me out over there, so that was pretty cool.
Currently I have a project studio set up with a Pro Tools system. I’ve worked with every DAW in the book but I’m most comfortable with Pro Tools. My philosophy as an engineer is the same as my philosophy as a musician. “You have to serve the song.” I love making other artist sound good. I love seeing them see their vision come out of the speakers.

In our lifetime, we’ve seen digital home recording explode. Prices have come down while the technology has grown leaps and bounds in the last 20 years. Given that, what role does an actual studio and hiring an actual engineer or producer offer an independent or aspiring musician? Why should or would someone pay to visit a studio when they can use something like garage band an ipad or even have a pro tools set up with a basic interface in their bedroom for less than a thousand bucks?

I think that’s a question that the industry is still coming to terms with. Amazing things are being done in a home studio. However, I’ve found that when an artist is trying to be all things in a session (producer, performer and engineer) that something is going to suffer and lots of time can be wasted. We’ve all found ourselves going down rabbit holes in the studio and wasting hours of the time we were supposed to be working on music.
Being in a pro environment can actually make things a lot less frustrating. Professionals have already made the mistakes that novices will inevitably fall victim to. The staff of a good studio can help keep the artist focused on their craft and push them to perform in ways they never knew possible.

How can an aspiring artist cut through the noise and distinguish themselves? While the tools exist to help someone get heard, what are some tips you can give to someone in order for them to get beyond their friends and families and connect with audiences?

Write killer songs. When I hear a new band I want to be blown away by how good the composition was. I want to go home singing it. There are always bands that are masters of their instruments or put on fun shows, and those are an important part of our job as musicians. But to have songs that set you apart and that connect with an audience is what makes a band cut through the noise. We as musicians like to write songs that are enjoyable for us to play, but we have to remember that our music is meant for an audience. We have to take that job seriously and give them something worth their time.

I think it’s getting harder and to get people to come out and see live music. There is so much competition for our time. We have so much more to be entertained with from the comfort of our couch than just a few years ago, so respect the craft and the audience that’s there even when it’s just the bartenders.

Most important advice you can give to an aspiring musician? He’s just learning to play, just getting started writing songs and riffs…

I don’t have all the answers so I’ll say what I wish someone would have told me when I was 21. Music isn’t a competition. Don’t let it be. You’re not trying to be the best, but to do your thing the best you can. Surround yourself with other musicians, better musicians, different musicians. Learn from those around you and be a part of a scene. We are all better when we all succeed. Go to other bands shows and cheer them on. You’ll be amazed at what’s out there and how much better your music will be.

Essential gear for a guitarist?

It depends on the guitarist. Guitar is such an interesting instrument because there is so much tone to chase and it all sounds different in other people’s hands. I love jamming with my younger brother, Kevin. He picks up my guitar and plays it through my rig and makes sounds I could never replicate. There is no magic box. Believe me, I’ve looked. I love the stuff that makes me want to keep playing and exploring.

Last question for now, and you know I have to ask: Beatles or Stones?

I love The Rolling Stones and have gotten into them more as I’ve gotten a bit older, but come on. When you look at songwriting, production and influence there’s no comparison. The Beatles are the reason we are all still playing in rock and roll bands.

dave 1Check out Dave’s current projects!
Apple Scruffs
Fake Believe
The Glass

And as always…support local music, not just with your ears but with your time and pocket. Get out to the shows!

David Latchaw – Unbrokenstring.com

Let’s chat with…David Latchaw of www.unbrokenstring.com

Hi David!

Tell us a little about what brought you into the world of guitar and amp repair.  How long have you been doing it? How does it feel to have a schmancy name like “luthier?”

My entre’ was entirely supernatural.  My mother raised her children to play keyboard, band, and stringed instruments.  She passed away a few years ago.  Shortly after that, a very close friend, and leader of our Bible study where I work, lost her struggle with cancer.  Within a month, friends and co-workers (whom I had no idea were musicians) approached me EVERY DAY with music-related questions and inquiries about getting their stuff fixed (and one of them dared to call me a “luthier.”)  I did what I could to support them, and I am now powerless to stop.

Your site is easily one of the most fascinating gear pages I’ve seen. What gave you the idea of sharing your projects with such detailed photos and blow-by-blow breakdown of the work involved?

The initial motivation was to differentiate myself from poseurs and braggarts who ‘talk the talk’ of fixing musical instruments and electronic equipment, but who do not ‘walk the walk;’ The Web site was to clearly demonstrate that I could perform the work as described – “Don’t believe me, just watch!”

The second motivation was to enable me to shamelessly promote the business in a New Media space in such a way that would easily integrate into such online platforms as Facebook and Reddit using pictures and video, without any duplication of effort.  By managing content to one place I could easily enter other media spaces using a single HTML link.

What’s your advice for anyone interested in buying a used guitar or amp? What should they look for, what should they stay away from?

Each instrument should be evaluated on its own merits without regard to brand name or model.  My philosophy regarding the purchase of a guitar is discussed In my blog post http://unbrokenstring.com/engineers-tips-selecting-first-guitar/

That said, the choice of the rest of the gear is a different matter.  Cruise Craigslist or pawn shops for a pre-owned amp.  Musicians are always upgrading their gear, so buying something used, particularly older gear, is a good value.  Avoid the ‘Made in China’ stuff.  And if your ‘find’ doesn’t work, you KNOW who to call.

What’s the best way for someone to learn how to maintain their instrument or amplifier? What are some basic things everyone should know in order to get the most longevity and satisfaction out of their gear?

Owners’ manuals are available for almost everything.  Read the section of the manual that discusses ‘Care and Maintenance’ two or three times.

Wash your hands before playing, and wipe off your instrument afterwards.

Go to the car parts store and purchase some electrical contact cleaner.  Wipe down your cable connectors and jacks with a little contact cleaner from time to time.  Don’t use WD40 because it leaves an organic film of fish oil on everything.

Don’t smoke around your gear because it leaves a film of nicotinic acid on everything.

Use modern transient suppression equipment for AC line powered equipment.  I offer these: http://www.smartpowersystems.com/ which protects against arc flash transients per IEC2014 as well as more traditional electrical power surges.    I have seen an entire stage-worth’s of gear wiped out in an instant, due to old AC wiring in a venue.  Protect yourself.

When should someone call in a pro like yourself?

The time to call a pro is the time you realize your stuff has been in someone else’s shop for a year without being fixed.

Your site features a ton of unique, often “off-brand” and vintage gear. What do you think about the new stuff being made today? Who is making gear that really impresses you right now?

You won’t find much mass-produced electronic equipment from China on my blog, because it is designed and built to be sold and sent to the landfill, and not repaired.

I’m a huge Peavey fan, mainly because of the robust support ecosystem, availability of spare parts and factory phone support right here in the U.S.A.  Yeah, Peavey is the stuff our parents gave us when we were in high school, but it works surprisingly well.  I love to work on it.

Houston is a strange place in my opinion. One of the largest cities in the country but it is very much a mid-level market in a lot of ways. Places like Austin, Seattle, even a place like Athens Georgia…all are viewed as better “scenes” than Houston by many people. Yet, Houston can call some incredible musicians as its sons and daughters – ZZ Top, Kings X, Clint Black, the Geto Boys, Destiny’s Child, Robert Earl Keen, Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Rogers, BJ Thomas, Ezra Charles, Lightning Hopkins.

That’s not a bad list!

So…here are the questions: Despite this amazing history, why does Houston lack a “thriving music scene?”

People come to Houston to work and make money.  The objective of making money is sometimes at best agnostic with respect to the arts, and at worst, at cross-purposes.

What makes a “scene” great?

A great scene is the result of a functional ecosystem of creators, facilitators, and consumers, who interact in such a way so that everyone benefits.

As someone who works with some of the best players around town, what do you think of the Houston music scene and the musicians, venues, retailers, services providers (such as yourself) who comprise it?

It’s very fragmented.  Part of that is geographic, due to Houston’s urban sprawl.  If we look at venues, where is Houston’s version of Austin’s 6th Street?  Washington Avenue?  Maybe… or Downtown. Kemah.  FM1960.  Mid-town. Pasadena.  You choose.

Culture fragments the scene.  Houston has an awesome rap scene and Tejano music scene, but, much to the chagrin of this Child of the Sixties, we, as a society, have made Negative Progress in unifying the cultures in the American melting pot.  The walls between us are higher than I’ve ever seen them…

Another source of fragmentation is the near-extinction of local music stores.  God Bless the local music stores that have weathered the enormous music market consolidation that occurred throughout the whole Internet/MARS/GC ordeal.  Visiting with the owners of these local stores, it’s my opinion that they are in ‘siege mode’ after decades of competing with the national chains and online retailers.

And don’t get me started on the venue business models.  OK, I get it; Exploiting musicians to sell alcohol is one thing.  But having the bands promote the venue they don’t own, sell the tickets and give all the proceeds to someone else, then scheduled for some free exposure based on how many of their friends they bring, is enormously cynical.  What’s next?  Maybe the bands could clean the bathrooms and fix the AC at their own expense.  Venue management needs a paradigm change and, in some cases, a regime change.

In response, the musician retreats into their bedroom, with an Internet connection, a good mic, and DI box to create their art, isolated from the rest of the world.  Technology empowers the individual, but fragments the scene.

What role does each individual player, venue etc play in ensuring a city has a thriving music (and artistic in general) community?

We need to maximize our gifts (musical talent, performance skill, technical chops, business acumen, etc.) through practice and performance, to be as good as we can be, to maximize the opportunity for success.  And we owe it to our audiences and customers to NOT suck.

We need to decide to have a little humility and consider how we can be of service to those of us in the community…  just as you are doing with Cathedral Records.

A careful balance between the determination to be successful and the humility necessary to serve others is enormously difficult.  This difficulty is compounded in our society where we celebrate the Bono-class egos that dominate the music business.  But, if we were to take ourselves down a notch and work a little bit toward the common good, the music community will more likely thrive.

The alternative is, we all doggedly work towards our own individual self-interests, and nothing changes.

Alright…word association…what’s the first thing that pops into your head?

Gibson – my first real guitar

Paul Reed Smith – Carlos Santana

Stratocaster – Jeff Beck

Twin Reverb – Fender combo

Stack – Slash

Jim Marshall – Lord of Loud, RIP

Finally…last question, and you know I have to ask:

Beatles or Stones? – Of these two, Beatles.

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Ronnie Main

Ronnie Main – husband, father, guitarist, retail mogul!

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So tell me…are you really Scottish or is it something you do to pick up chicks?

Ha, the accent is totally legit. I’ve had it for quite some time. It only works over here in the states, it worked on my missus.

 

You have an interesting story. Tell me a little bit about how you came to Houston from Scotland, how you met your wife.

Great story, if you ask me. We actually met in an MSN chat room for alternative music (back when that was cool). I didn’t know anyone with the name “Renee” and I decided to talk to her. Several back and forth messages, emails, care packages etc over time and I pestered her into loving me. I decided to move here once we got married because she was still in school.

Once you arrived in Houston, what was and is your impression of the local music scene? Do you feel it has changed at all since then? If so, how?

In all honesty, I wasn’t fully in the scene when I arrived. It wasn’t until after I started working at Guitar Center that I began to get more involved and more so once I joined a band. There’s a huge array of talent here and different styles/genres of music to choose from. If you’re into something you can definitely find it in Houston. As a musician it’s tough to break through in any city and Houston is no different. However there are some great avenues. It’s definitely grown over the years with the introduction to social media but, the musician is still definitely underappreciated and underpaid for the efforts put forth.

Tell me about your musical projects? How did you go about meeting musicians after arriving in Houston?

I tried the site like houstonbands.net at first and met with a few folks but none of them every really panned out…just never clicked and as you know chemistry is a huge part. I did eventually get together with a few folks and it first happened a GC. I was playing something i write and a Patrick (my drummer) overheard and we got to talking. I honestly blew him off for a few months until I saw him again  while eating  dinner. We met up at GC again and I played him a few things then we set up a jam with a few of his friends. That jam later turned into Raging Apathy. I’ve played with 3 bass players, four singers and two guitar players in that group but the foundation was always Patrick and myself.

As far as any other projects goes it’s only ever been my own writing.

You’re the general manager of Guitar Center North Houston. Tell me about your career, how Guitar Center fits into the local scene and what you do to make sure you stay grounded in the local scene despite the company being such a large national chain.

I’ve worked at almost every store in Houston now but I started in Clear Lake. Almost all of us are musicians and we love talking about gear. I personally love talking about gear! GC has given us a place to enjoy and freely test out the equipment we all want before we buy it and without the hassle. In the scene you’re always known as the “guitar center guy”, which is quit funny.

What inspired you to play? You have a very unique approach to both acoustic and electric guitar. Tell me a little about what and who shaped your style?

My uncle had a guitar so I’ve always been around it as I grew up  but I never really touched it other than accidentally breaking a string. My first concert was Guns n Roses in 1992. Slash came down to the front of the crowd while playing and I reached out and touched his shoulder as he walked past. I always joke that this was the moment, but that concert started me down a path I wouldn’t change. We arrived home from the show the next morning and I asked my uncle to show me some chords. I taught myself from books, watching MTV unplugged sessions and crudely written sheets with song chords. So, my first influence would be by uncle, then Slash. His style has definitely shaped my own over the years. I learned what I could form songs and bands that I loved.

Best local band out there right now?

That’s honestly a tough question. My ego says my own, while we were active. There are a lot of excellent talent in Houston and I couldn’t choose one in particular.

Best local venue out there right now?

House of blues has to be the best mid size venue in Houston. I love the layout and the sound system there. I also love Scout bar. It is a great stage, great lights and great sound system. The owner knows the struggle of being in a band and shows some great appreciation to the local acts by giving them the chance to get out there and even play with national acts.

With social network being what it is and there being so much content out there from big bands and aspiring players out there on youtube, soundcloud and every other site, how can a musician help themselves cut through the noise and connect with their audience? How can they distinguish themselves rather than passively hoping their music gets noticed? How do they get beyond their friends and families to strangers who will come out to see them, click their tracks and download their music?

Sometimes having a gimmick can help, but I am a strong beleiver in having great music and a very hard working attitude. As they say, you have to spend money to make money. Get yourself out there, spend the money on a quality product and get your music to as many people as possible. It’s a lot easier to get your music out there these days but it’s a lot tougher to “make it”.

Most important advice you can give to an aspiring musician? He’s just learning to play, just getting started writing songs and riffs…

Work hard, simple as that. It’s not easy, but if you work hard at learning your instrument and using the tools at your disposal, it’ll pay off.

Essential gear for a guitarist? (Here’s your chance to get some folks out to GC North Houston!)

Quality instruments. It pays to have a good guitar, good cables or a good pedal. Save up for what you really want. It took me a long time to get my Les Paul, but it was well worth the wait.

What are the benefits to going to a studio compared to recording everything on your ipad or on your own home computer? (Here’s your chance to get some folks to Cathedral Records haha)

It takes a good ear and years of experience to put out a good product. Let the engineer you’re paying for worry about how to get that guitar part to fit with the vocals, you need to worry about the music. Also, sometimes having a producer is very helpful with the unbiased outside perspective.

Final question:

Beatles or Stones? (You know I had to ask haha)

Beatles…always!