Yesterday, November 29th, marked 16 years since George Harrison died.
It’s hard to come up with something original to say about him or John, Paul, or Ringo for that matter, but I’ve never really written in depth about what he means to me and this seems as fitting a time as any.
First, let’s get it out of the way, I totally cheated with the title of this. If Not For You is in fact a Bob Dylan song, I know. BUT…I like George’s version better and it fits. 😉
The Quiet One
The early days of Beatlemania brought those kitschy nicknames we all know: John the smart one, Paul the cute one, Ringo the funny one, and of course George the quiet one…and in a way he was…but in a way, he certainly was not.
There was a rigid economy that marked his words and music. Like a successful athlete, there was no wasted motion. Everything he said or played meant something. I’ve always admired that, particularly given my struggle with saying too much, often at the worst possible time.
Don’t Bother Me
George always stood apart from the rest. He had a demeanor, evident even from those early press conferences and performances, that displayed a certain seriousness, the pensive stare of someone surveying the crowd, not quite interested in being there but not wanting to leave either.
He resisted giving all of himself to all of us in a way that may not have been true of his brothers-in-arms but when he did allow us in, it was glorious.
He seemed to simultaneously loathe and relish the attention, the wealth, his craft, and, at times, even himself. As someone often complimented for being “charismatic” or “funny” or whatever else but also one who receives just as much derision for my apparent bitterness and anti-social tendencies, I always found George’s music and personality to be familiar… comforting even. I’m not the only one who struggles with balancing my seemingly diametrically opposed needs for isolation and attention, my cynicism and empathy…all of which always seems to be an anathema for so many around me. There are many here among us who understand what I mean.
A little dark and out key
From the beginning, George’s songs and even their titles stuck out. Take a glance at the tracking listing for With the Beatles. “All I’ve Got to Do” leads into “All My Loving” and then to “Don’t Bother Me” and then to “Little Child”. Have a guess at which George wrote. Go on…have a guess.
While the boys were writing some of the great pop love songs of all time, George chipped in with “If I Needed Someone.” IF?!
“Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” are rightly among the most cherished songs in the Beatles canon but “If I Needed Someone” has always been more significant to me…perhaps because I’ve been on the other side of the conversation depicted in the lyrics:
Had you come some other day Then it might not have been like this But you see now I’m too much in love Carve your number on my wall
And maybe you will get a call from me If I needed someone
I suppose too, I’ve been on both sides.
The wry and even biting wit found in “Taxman” or “Piggies” was written by the same man who created “Savoy Truffle”. Inspired by his friend Eric Clapton, it is both a clever ode and a sinister warning about Clapton’s lust for candy.
The lilting sparsity found in “Long Long Long” is a sibling to both the epic “All Too Much” and the massive and lush “Photograph” penned for Ringo’s 1973 album, Ringo.
Without the band his music further expanded and explored the seemingly endless battle between his biting disdain and the sublime meditations which defined so much of his life.
So too was his playing. Go back and listen to “Long Tall Sally” again. His two solos shatter through the speakers, explode off the acetate. This is George Unleashed.
George’s later work, marked by the fuzz box and slightly off-kilter rhythms and melodies found throughout Revolver, helped define an era andhas inspired every guitarist from Jimi Hendrix to Matthew Sweet. It is THE Fuzz Tone. All others bend their knee in reverence.
A favorite moment of mine, and one that further displays just how much rage George could conjure is found on John’s 1971 song “Gimme Some Truth.” By then George had embraced what would be one of his many musical signatures: the guitar slide.
From a scream to a moan, to a fading tender tear, to a joyous prayer, his slide and his finger-picked legato phrasing have inspired and confounded me my entire life. Two of my favorites may surprise you given the depth of his work but I love the solos he contributed to the Anthology songs “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love”. As vibrant and soulful as any he played, for me at least, they “make” the songs.
Anyway, I can go on for days about this. About 18 years ago I wrote in a journal that I didn’t want to live in a world without George Harrison. Unfortunately he died shortly after…but he hasn’t really gone away has he? Not really.
Dhani, George’s son, an incredible musician in his own right, has done a masterful job of protecting and expanding George’s legacy and for that I am certainly grateful. He has worked tirelessly on remastering and preserving his father’s music and instruments, and organized George Fest back in 2014. The concert is available for purchase and clips abound on YouTube.
My want is that you all take a moment to dig through his songs a bit more than perhaps you have in the past. There’s so much more to his contributions than “Something” and “Here Comes the Son” or “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”….and those are monumental testaments. They are truly among the greatest songs ever written.
But do yourself a favor. Go a little deeper even than “All Things Must Pass” (a personal favorite) and look at tunes like “Never Get Over You” from his 2002 posthumous album, Brainwashed. Check out the oft-overlooked “Apple Scruffs” from his incredible All Things Must Pass. (And check out my friend David’s fantastic Beatles band by the same name)
My true want is that we forever and profoundly carry George Harrison in our hearts. I think doing so makes us better.
August 16 marked 40 years since Elvis Presley died. In the years since his music has been packaged and repacked, remastered, remixed, and re-released in so many ways it can sometimes be difficult to believe he actually died.
I’ve always loved Elvis. His was one of the first voices I heard as a child. His music and legend is as tightly woven into my life as anyone can be and along with the Beatles and Beach Boys, Elvis forms a sort of Holy Trinity of music. They lay the foundation upon which everything I love is built. Everything seems to branch off from there.
Yet, for a variety of reasons, Elvis continues to be thought of as a caricature. Kitschy memorabilia, horribly cheesy impersonators, bad Halloween costumes, tasteless jokes about his final hours, and a growing denigration of his contributions to rock and roll have all contributed to a very inaccurate image of who Elvis was, the incredible role he played in music and culture, and his phenomenal talent.
I can’t count how many times I’ve encountered someone who says “uh, I just don’t get it. He was just a fat guy…he didn’t ‘invent’ rock and roll anyway….he made all those crappy movies, and those jumpsuits! Ugh!”
It’s quite unfortunate and a lot of it has to do with the way his legacy and music has been treated by those entrusted to protect it. But, that’s another topic for another day.
Rather, I’d like to talk about what matters most, his talent and his music. Let’s strip away all the noise and let’s just talk music.
Go back and listen to some of those early recordings. In 1956, Elvis recorded “Blue Moon”, a song originally written in 1934. Give it a listen…listen close to That Voice, the delivery. Against a sparse almost non-existent musical arrangement, Elvis’ vocal range is on full display, gently lilting between his gorgeous baritone and a dulcet falsetto. The song is both haunting and romantic.
Three years later Elvis seems to channel is inner Buddy Holly with the release of “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”. With Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and Johnny Bernero providing the instrumentation Elvis sings:
Made myself a promise That I’d soon forget we ever met But something sure is wrong ‘Cause I’m so blue and lonely I forgot to remember to forget
Anyone watch the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?
Elvis of course ran off a seemingly endless string of hits throughout the late 50s and into the 60s. Songs like “Heartbreak Hotel”, “That’s All Right Mama”, “Teddy Bear”, “Jailhouse Rock”, and “It’s Now or Never” were blaring out of transistor radios and through TV sets around the world. By the time the early 60s arrived, the Colonel had thrown The King into the movie business and it didn’t take long for Elvis to become increasingly frustrated both with the quality of the film as well as the quality of the music born of those movies.
So, enter 1968. This is the year Elvis decided to remind the world just who the hell they were dealing with.
The famed Comeback Special, actually titled “Elvis” aired on NBC on December 3, 1968. It has a bit of late 60s schmaltz in terms of production and choreography but Elvis’ voice was stronger than it had been to that point in his career, and he oozed with a sexuality and confidence that betrayed the stage fright and insecurity with which he entered the project.
The highlight for me, and most others, is the stripped down performance with DJ Fontana, Scotty Moore (both original band members), as well as Alan Fortas, Charlie Hodge, and Lance LeGault.
At his core, Elvis was a gospel, rhythm and blues singer. This performance puts those influences on display with growling, sweaty renditions of some of his early hits. The best of which are “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, “Tryin’ to Get to You”, and “Baby What do You Want Me to Do”. I watch these clips on a regular basis (no doubt providing the missus with more than a bit of frustration ha-ha) and I’m constantly in awe. Gorgeous, confident when singing, shy when speaking, and That Voice this is Elvis in command, Elvis in most pure form.
The show also included what would become one Elvis’ most lasting songs, “If I Can Dream”. Perhaps the closest he would get to a “political” statement in his music, the song features one of his best vocal performances. Against the social and political turmoil of the times, he sings:
There must be lights burning brighter somewhere Got to be birds flying higher in a sky more blue If I can dream of a better land Where all my brothers walk hand in hand Tell me why, oh why, oh why can’t my dream come true Oh why
There must be peace and understanding sometime Strong winds of promise that will blow away the doubt and fear If I can dream of a warmer sun Where hope keeps shining on everyone Tell me why, oh why, oh why won’t that sun appear
We’re lost in a cloud With too much rain We’re trapped in a world That’s troubled with pain But as long as a man Has the strength to dream He can redeem his soul and fly
Deep in my heart there’s a trembling question Still I am sure that the answer gonna come somehow Out there in the dark, there’s a beckoning candle And while I can think, while I can talk While I can stand, while I can walk While I can dream, please let my dream Come true, right now Let it come true right now
I quote the full the song because it has a renewed significance given today’s social and political climate.
A few months later Elvis would begin the next and last phase, of his incredible career. Backed by a new band anchored by the incomparable James Burton on guitar and Ronnie Tutt on drums, the “TCB Band” would perform with Elvis until his death. He set up shop and crafted an entirely new show where he would feature old and new hits as well as reimaginings of contemporary songs by likes of Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, and Neil Diamond. 1972 brought him to Madison Square Garden, which was released as a live album and the following year gave us the seminal Aloha from Hawaii broadcast and album. This period saw Elvis at the peak of his vocal power. There was nothing he could not sing. Legend has it that he wanted to sing in an opera, or at least a duet, but the Colonel did not thing it meshed with The King’s image or appeal to his fans.
This period also features two of my all time favorite recordings. Elvis’ gospel-fueled interpretation of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody.” His voice grew stronger with time, his command and range were never better, and he showcased it with these and countless other songs and his emphasis on his gospel roots became more prominent as he moved towards the end.
By 1976 and certainly into the early months of 1977 Elvis’ emotional struggles, the stress of financially supporting such a large army of musicians, family members, friends, and hangers-on, the loss of his mother, as well as his increasing discomfort with fame and the resulting isolation.
His gorgeous frame struggled to maintain the increasing weight. The medications his doctors pushed upon him in order to keep him up for performances and then bring him down to sleep, as well as to stabilize his moods clouded his once sharp wit and intellect. There’s plenty of unfortunate footage of him slurring his words or forgetting lyrics but that shouldn’t be the lasting image anyone has of this once-in-a-lifetime talent. His legacy should be his voice, his cultural impact, and contributions to American music.
So, I hope you all click a few of those links, listen to the music, and watch the performances. My hope is that I’ve perhaps provided a different perspective than what you may have had on Elvis Presley. He’s The King and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
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. 🙂
If it seems like I’ve been away or like things have been quiet it’s because things have been more than a little busy…tumultuous even.
Quick rundown: I had a brief health scare that turned out to be nothing I can’t manage, nothing tooo serious. I quit smoking, and I hurt my back (again).
I’ve been drowning in school work, but the end is in sight to the point that I was able to take part in commencement. I even got to visit New Hampshire to visit the university campus. It was awesome!
I have to say, the Irish pub there in Manchester, NH poured me the most beautiful pint of Guinness I’ve ever had!
My home continues to be a hive of activity with Young Master Oliver evolving from a tiny baby to a not-so-tiny kid.
He’s stretching out, his weight redistributed and what was once a chubby adorable baby is now a lean, incredibly active little boy who lights up my tired, broken soul even when I think I’m about to drop.
How about them Astros?! My son and I greatly enjoy each evening as we cuddle up for bed and watch what might be my favorite incarnation of my beloved Astros. We even managed to go to a game with my dad a couple weeks back and we’ll be going again in June and July!
As far as music goes well…me personally I’ve not had a ton of time to write or record, save for a demo I posted to SoundCloud a couple weeks back. It’s called “Drink to Forget” and you can check it out here: https://soundcloud.com/jason-r-becerra.
I still hope to do proper recordings and work with some of my friends within the Houston music community with final mixing/mastering to release my first EP hopefully by year’s end but if there’s something I’ve learned over the course of this year it’s that I have to be careful about placing deadlines on myself.
With a baby and a house to run and a full-time career and everything that comes with all of that, it can be more stressful than anything to try and set deadlines.
One thing is setting a goal and striving for it. Another thing is setting a deadline and stressing about meeting it and then feeling awful because you missed it. Right?
So as of now, my plan is to finish up these last few weeks of school assignments and then take a nice break from everything. I want to take a month or two, or three and just relax knowing I don’t have weekly assignments to turn in, no research to do, no frantic weekends scrambling to write term papers…and more important than all that I want to enjoy what I’ve achieved.
People tell me all the time that they don’t know “how I do it.” They tell me how commendable it is to get a masters degree while working full time, raising a baby, serving as the operations manager for a household and trying to do something with my little Cathedral Records project and writing professional pieces for www.jasonrbecerra.com and LinkedIn.
So while I’ve never thought much of it and don’t typically stop long enough to congratulate myself, I think I want to do just that. I think I want to kind of sit around and see what it feels like to feel successful, like I’ve accomplished something.
But not for too long mind you. Hopefully by the fall/early winter I’ll hole up in the Cathedral and sift through songs and begin the process of making proper recordings with polished lyrics and arrangements. At that point I’ll be making phone calls to see who wants to help mix/master and then we’ll see.
I think it would awesome to do a digital release and have a few LPs pressed.
As for performing…I don’t think I have it in me to do it extensively but if the opportunity arises to share a bill or take part in a series of shows in a cool intimate storytelling setting then I may just jump on that…once Oliver is old enough and I don’t feel guilty about not being around for bedtime. We’ll see. Again…my new thing is trying not to put artificial, unrealistic, or stressful deadlines or expectations on myself.
That doesn’t mean I want to be lazy and remove all goals but it does mean I want to do a better job of managing stress and how much I take on at once.
Anyway – in the next few days I’ll be publishing what I hope will be a very well-received article about the one and only MIEARS! She was kind enough to take some time out of her incredibly busy schedule to discuss a variety of topics related to music, life, the universe, and everything.
Shortly thereafter the promised album review of The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl. I’ve listened to it several times on 180 gram vinyl and it’s just excellent. I’m fascinated by the technical undertaking involved with making that record what it is and I look forward to sharing my thoughts with all of you.
Also, I’m putting my thoughts together regarding a look back on the Singles film and soundtrack. That album is essential listening for me and I seem to listen to it at least monthly.
Chris Cornell’s death has hit me harder than most deaths…his, Robin Williams, and Prince’s deaths have really impacted me.
I’ve been unable to really put pen to paper about it all in any formal way but I think it’s time I did…for my benefit more than anything.
Finally, support your favorite musicians and get out to live shows when you can.
MIEARS just announced a gig at Eleanor Tinsley Park on June 4th. That should be a great start to these incredibly hot and sweaty days of summer. Her EP continues to make for an dynamic and impactful listen. If you haven’t listed to “Who Will Save You” then make that top of list.
Simultaneously I’ve been digging back through Juliana Hatfield’s catalog as her new record is about to drop. I adore her music and she’s written several songs that are cemented in my life’s mix tape.
All this feminine energy got me thinking about all the incredible women songwriters and bands that have been such an intrinsic part of my musical upbringing and have provided me with incredible inspiration.
So…I decided to put a bit of a list together…in no particular order here are some of my essential female artists from the 90s. Maybe I’ll do another article like this about artists from other decades so we can talk about my beloved Shangri-Las, the Ronettes, Darlene Love, Blondie, Janice, Mama Cass and so many, many others but for now let’s do this rapid fire style and keep it to the 90s because that’s what I’ve been listening to a lot these last few weeks.
Most of you will be familiar with them, if so, polish off those albums and give them a listen. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with some of these ladies, well…what are you waiting for?!
All respect to the boys in the Pixies, Kim Deal has always been my favorite part of that band. The Breeders are of one of my favorite bands and while I’m disappointed at not being able to see a “proper” Pixies show, I’m really happy that Kim is focusing on the Breeders right now.
I remember the first time I heard them. A dear friend and I would swap mix tapes and one of hers included three songs: Metal Man, Opened, and Cannonball.
Metal Man was so different than anything I’d ever heard. That rough acoustic intro, all by itself and then the big build that implies its’ going to explode but nope…drops right back down.
I was hooked. Over the years I’ve come to cherish Pod and Last Splash as much as any album from that time period and I’ve enjoyed following along as Kim and her cohorts have churned out some of the most interesting and passionate rock I’ve ever heard.
Jeez…what a great band. I had the pleasure to finally see them live in Houston a few years back. At that time the lineup did not include co-founder Nina Gordon but did include another female artist who I absolutely adore: Nicole Fiorentino who has played bass for some of the great bands of the 90s and 2000s including a long run with the Smashing Pumpkins. Their albums, beginning-to-end, are so raw and dirty and embody everything I love about that period in rock.
I’m definitely not the only one who thinks Shirley Manson is a goddess. She’s gorgeous and sexy and commands a stage and audience like few ever have but it’s really all about that voice…that voice is killer. Garbage hit me like a truck when their first album dropped in 1995. I obsessed over every dimension of that insanely good record and they have followed it up over and over again with incredible albums and shows.
As mentioned above, so many of her songs have just become intrinsic to my soul. “Feelin’ Massachusetts,” “Supermodel,” “Spin the Bottle,” “Fleur de Lys,” and “What a Life” are go-to songs for me. And don’t ignore her work in other groups like the Lemonheads!
She is a classically trained musician who plays a bevy of instruments and I fondly remember reading her columns in Guitar World magazine. While the other artists were focused on teaching speed and technique she placed her emphasis on songwriting and melody…how to conjure the best from what you already have inside. That resonated with me…and still does. I’m incredibly excited to hear the new album because she is spitting fire and rage right now and I can’t wait for my deluxe pack to arrive!
Oh my…Lisa Loeb. How I adore thee. In a way she is responsible for my marriage. I was working out the guitar part to her big hit “Stay” one night and this girl my brother knew wanted to be a singer. I didn’t have a band at the time and thought it would be cool to do a duo so she came over one night and we started doing that song. After a bit she suggested we go to the local Starbucks where some friends of hers were hanging out and playing music. We did. My not-yet-wife walked onto the patio and I was taken aback. Leslie walked up and asked what we were doing and I said I was working out the progression to Stay and she said she loved that song and started singing. So did the girl I showed up with. I ended up telling that girl to shush so I could hear Leslie sing haha…probably not the most polite thing to do but again, I was more than a little smitten.
Loeb combines that gorgeous sweet voice with a great turn-of-phrase and while many may relegate her to the one hit wonder bin, her catalog is full of wildly well-crafted songs. I particularly love “Alone,” “Do You Sleep,” and “Rose-Colored Times” from her 1995 release Tails.
Can you mention women artists without bringing up Sarah McLachlan? I don’t think so. Surfacing and Fumbling Towards Ecstasy are masterpieces. I’m not going to bother listing tunes because we all know them, and if you don’t you need to look them up.
Jeez…is there a more powerful voice than that of Johnette Napolitano? Their 1990 album Bloodletting was another album I was introduced to via a friend’s mix tape. The album is great but the magic is in their live acoustic performances of “Joey” and “Tomorrow, Wendy.” She also performed with Steven Wynn on the track “The Ship Song” which again displays her incredible vocals.
Another band that I was turned onto via that same mix tape…jeez what a gift that tape is.
Tanya Donnelly has been a busy lady. Throwing Muses, the Breeders, and Belly were all part of the fabric of the times. Belly had their first hit with “Feed the Trees” off their first album Star but it was their second album, King,that featured a real favorite of mine: “Puberty.”
Dig a little deeper though and you’ll find two cover songs that blew my mind: Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced” and Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual.” Tanya’s bold fearlessness has always been a source of great inspiration to me…and again, that voice. Sweet and girly but not weak…there’s a troublemaker there.
Tracy Freaking Bonham
What an incredible talent…classically trained violinist and pianist who can blow the roof off any juke joint or stadium with a rage that would intimidate Zack de la Rocha. “Mother Mother” was her big hit, and I love it (even tried to cover it once) but dig deeper and you’ll find gems like “Brain Crack” where she puts those violin chops to work.
I’m in love with Dolores O’Riordan…have been since the first time I heard her voice and I pull out “Everybody Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We” on a very regular basis. The moodiness, the sweet melancholy, and yearning in her voice and the melodies she crafted over the Smiths-inspired music they so tightly crafted that I can’t imagine my upbringing without her or them.
The 90s were a spectacular time for women in rock. I didn’t mention above but 10,000 Maniacs with Natalie Merchant, Tori Amos, and the Indigo Girls are also absolutely generational talents that are just as essential to my musical identity as anyone else.
There was Dido, Alanis, Natalie Imbruglia, Jewel, Sheryl Crow, Sixpence None the Richer, and so many others. We could do this for days!
It seems like some of that spirit is still alive in artists like Sara Bareilles, Lily Allen, KT Tunstall, and certainly Norah Jones. We also can’t forget about Lady Gaga. There are still great women out there killing but it doesn’t feel the same.
Maybe I’m old and out of touch. Maybe I’ve gotten to that point where I’m locked into “my era” and modern music doesn’t resonate with me like it did when I was younger.
Regardless, the 90s female rock scene felt like a movement. It felt revolutionary and so different.
Obviously there have always been fantastic female artists but man…during this time it seemed like the ladies were outdoing their male counterparts in a lot of areas.
Anyway, that’s it for now…just wanted to throw a few words on the page to let everyone know what I’ve been listening to and mulling on for the last week or two.
Tessa Kole is one of Houston’s most dynamic and outspoken musicians. She quickly pivots from passionate artist to outspoken activist to successful athlete with what, on the surface at least, seems like almost effortless ease.
The same agility is true even in how she speaks. Her southern drawl is as sugary and comforting as grandma’s ice tea served on the porch under the blazing Texas sun. In a moment it can transform into rapid fire expletives and a tone as sharp as any West Texas barbwire.
Essentially, Tessa’s personality and life are as widely diverse and far reaching as Texas itself. Full of passion and integrity, she seems to embody ideas, approaches, and goals that at some points seem to be diametrically opposite to one another. Yet somehow they blend together to create something special and unlike anything, or anyone, else. Like the Lone Star State, Tessa is not willing to settle or be defined by any one aspect of her life. In fact, just one of the many distinct projects she juggles in a normal day-in-the-life could overwhelm even the most committed go-getters.
Tessa fills her day with her students that require extensive lesson planning and organization, her band, in which she is a principal writer, guitarist, and vocalist.
Having trouble keeping up?
She also collaborates with extensively with Stiletto Broadcasting on radio programs and in championing women in music. Her passion for community inspired her to create the Musicians’ DIY Fight Club.
How many hours are there in a day again?
Oh, and she’s also a competitive swimmer which demands incredible training, diet, and more than a few scheduling challenges.
Such an ambitious lifestyle often comes with compromises and creative multi-tasking. Perhaps the most of which she detailed by saying, “(Sometimes) I make breakfast and eat it in the bathtub to save time. I know that sounds crazy, but when I need more sleep…I sleep as late as I can, and that means that certain things have to be done together to save time.”
Tessa life in music seemed to be predestined. Born to a classical pianist mom while dad, a band director, also owned an orchestra and band repair company. At 4, at the insistence of her mother, she began piano. Piano led to guitar and even to “dabbling” in bass. An accomplished musician, she has a mastery of reading and writing notation and insists on doing the later by hand. “It’s a more organic process to me” she mentioned as we discussed her approach to writing and about her role as teacher.
At an early age she was inspired by Siouxsie and the Banshees and cites two of Prince’s albums, Sign O’ the Times and Around the World in a Day, as among her favorite albums of all time. A fan of dynamic Houston bands like Glass the Sky, Jealous Creatures, Only Beast, Valeluna, and Whit she also deeply enjoys Hiatus Kaiyote. (More evidence of the diversity that define her spirit)
Her music, which includes the band PuraPharm, (in which she is joined by her husband Paul Adams) weaves between moody, textured rhythms employing programmed, often frantic, beats to authentic Texas roots inspired acoustic folk marked by her passionately belted vocals.
Her writing process is not marked by any particular or rigid method but rather finds inspiration and melody from wherever it can be found. “I’ll know when the melody is right. It just happens naturally,” she said. Despite her extensive musical vocabulary and knowledge of theory, she continues to explore progressions rooted in basic open chords, the same one she teaches daily to her students.
“It’s like pieces of a puzzle that they can be creative with and use any way they want. I’ll take open chords and move them up and down the fret board until I hear something that works well and (sounds) unusual. The more I’ve started learning about certain chord progressions and how they work when rearranged a certain way, plus using my own intuition, magical things happen. I’ve got so much new material coming to me right now it’s ridiculous.”
She laughingly mentions that one of the songs she’s currently sewing together includes a progression born during a lesson with a 9 year old student who was kind enough to approve its use. How’s that for community and collaboration?!
A fiery Texas gal, there is no shortage of hot topics that ramp up her passion. When the topic of the Houston music community (she refuses the term “scene” and all it implies) the flames burn a few notches hotter. She is quick to express her passion and loyalty, and shower praise on her peers but just as quickly can launch criticism to those venues or “middle men” who exploit artists by charging bands to play or take advantage of the inexperienced to forward their own success.
“They will praise you one minute and tear you down behind your back the next. The only interest they have is their own, and advancing their own agendas. Most of these bands are just a pawn in those agendas. I refuse to be a part of it at any level.”
Now her engine is revving as she continues…
“A lot of bands don’t understand this, or just don’t care about it, but I do and that’s why you don’t see me hanging out with almost anyone. I don’t trust most people anyhow, so I don’t talk to these types in the first place. It saves me a lot of bullshit down the line. I run my own operation and do things in a way that is best for me. I learned early on not to trust anyone. I’ve never been one to run with the herd and follow their program, especially when there are so many flaws in it. I stay safe, stay away from all of those people, and my life has been much more drama free and I feel more (free) to create and do anything I want. I don’t want to be associated with any of those people. They’re the biggest two faced hypocrites you will ever meet. They don’t really have our backs; they just play real good at it. At the end of the day, they’re all out for themselves.”
This passionate independence and desire to provide others with the resources and the benefit of her experience cultivated over a lifetime in music inspired her to begin the Musicians’ DIY Fight Club. Not a record label, nor a management company, it operates as a sort of collective comprised of like-minded musicians who wish to collaborate and share wisdom in order to facilitate aspiring musicians as they attempt to take control of their own destinies and the business side of their careers.
“MDIYFC isn’t an organization. It’s more of a place to come for education and also to vent. It’s for people seeking the truth behind the way the music industry operates and (who) want ways to run their own show without the intervention of some POS middle man. Honestly, in this day and age, you don’t need ‘em. Some people may WANT them, but really, you don’t NEED them. There’s a big difference. It’s a place to come and talk about solutions.”
She’s running on all cylinders now as we discuss what advice she would offer aspiring musicians:
“Don’t trust anyone! That’s my biggest ‘don’t.’ People will lie to you, talk shit behind your back, and make you empty promises every day of the week….DO surround yourself with positive, uplifting people. Anything is possible if you believe it will work. Belief and faith is the main thing.”
Her passion for advocacy and activism hardly end at her beloved music community. A proud Christian, she does not shy away from openly sharing her faith. “My identity is through Him. I am proud to say I love Jesus Christ.”
The immediate reaction may be to think a devout Christian may cause a measure of conflict within a community known for its agnostics and atheists but Tessa happily states that while always feeling like an outsider of sorts, her faith has never been an issue with her fellow musicians in Houston.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said when the topic turns to politics.
A long time conservative that voted for Donald Trump in the most recent election, Tessa has been an outspoken activist going back to her participation in the Liberty Movement in 2009. More recently, the toxicity born of such a controversial and heated election cycle has taken its toll on many and she is no exception. Tessa describes some of her relationships as being strained, to say the least.
She has become somewhat of a target for those who find her outspoken support for conservative values. The political climate and heated debates have created incredible stress and ended several friendships.
“This election has caused the greatest divide amongst people I’ve ever seen. I’ve learned a lot along the way. I’ve been fucked with in every way possible, and I haven’t always responded well to that. I have been angry, hurt, frustrated, and depressed way too often and I have acted on those feelings in a manner that has not been healthy for me many times. I’ve cut ties with so many people I can’t even begin to tell you. Losing most of them has been for the best, but some I have really been shocked and hurt over.”
She continues with a heavy weariness in her tone, “There are people I will absolutely never speak to again. Then there are those that I’ve reached a level of pleasant discourse with, even though we completely disagree politically. Being a Trump supporter in the midst of a large group who hates him more than anything in the world has been really difficult.”
Refusing to let the drama bring her down, she chooses instead to focus on what inspires her and keeps her in a positive frame of mind: community, her music, her incredibly supportive husband, and finding solutions to problems through collaboration and faith.
“I’m really past the point of being upset about everything I’ve seen and experienced. I’m now to the point where I’m seeking better solutions. I want to keep things more positive. It’s a challenge for me. Once I get past the anger and hurt and frustration, I can get to the solution part. That’s where I’m headed now.”
In the end, Tessa Kole embodies the DIY individualism that has shaped Texas’ legend and lore for generations. She’s confident but not arrogant. She’s humble but not self-deprecating. She’s devoted but not self-righteous. Her music nods its head to her influences but could never be described as derivative. She’s sweet and polite like a well-raised good Texas gal, but mind your manners because like the barbwire that tamed the Wild West, she can shred you to pieces.
Her mantra? “Do no harm, but take no shit.”
Uncompromising in her beliefs and approach to music and life, she backs down from no one, stands up for everyone, and speaks from the heart no matter what. She’s exudes a gentle compassion for her friends and the community as a whole but to borrow from the famous slogan, Don’t Mess with Tess.
To listen to PuraPharm or Tessa Kole check them out on YouTube or Facebook.
I haven’t picked up a guitar for any reason other than to noodle or entertain my son, Young Master Oliver, in two months. Two months ago I got struck by the muse and frantically wrote and recorded a rough first take of a song called “Can’t Let You Go.” It’s been even longer, years, since I performed my own music in front of an audience. That part of my life may be over…but then again maybe not. The desire is there. The love of the grimy greasy connection with a sweaty audience will always be there.
Though I’m at that age where many say “well, if you haven’t done anything by this point you’re not going to” I still have that need, that compulsion to write and to be heard. I’m looking forward to putting school in my rearview mirror so I can invest that time in releasing my first real record later this year.
I’ve been writing songs since before I could play an instrument. I was “that” kid with a spiral notebook full of lyrics and a head full of melodies. Thoughts and feelings have been clawing out of me for as long as I can remember and that hasn’t changed with age…in fact it’s only become more urgent. I still have lots to say and I’m not going to keep it bottled up inside.
There’s something deep inside of me There’s someone else I’ve got to be….
I’ve often felt like I’m living someone else’s life…like I’m somehow going through the motions and wearing some kind of mask…like I’ve never fully committed to being who I really want to be, who I really am…like I’m walking a tight rope refusing to commit to either side.
I’ve never fit in.
I’ve had a nice professional career, solid resume and all that jazz, but I never really felt at home and always seemed like an outsider in this “business” world.
It has always felt the same way in the music community. I wrote songs and performed, sure, but I wasn’t a “real” musician…whatever that means. I always felt “less than.”
It kind of reminds me of junior high and high school. I wasn’t a jock, I wasn’t a nerd, I wasn’t a burnout, I wasn’t, well, anything. I had friends in every group but I was never fully embraced, nor did I fully enter any given group.
But somewhere along the lines I really stopped caring about fitting in, about “being who I really am” and just sort of started being who I actually am. To my surprise this has happened without noticing or even trying.
Which brings me to my point….
My point is that I finally have a point. I know who I am and what I want to do.
Freedom has a lot of definitions. It can mean a lot of things. It can mean having enough money to tell anyone to go screw themselves. It can mean having nothing left to lose…so you can tell anyone to go screw themselves.
Or, it can mean knowing exactly who you are.
For years I thought I had to live in one box and the fact that I wasn’t neatly packed in the “musician” box or the “mature business person” box or the “whatever else” box created a lot of internal struggle for me…and for sure those around me.
But now…screw it. I’m all things at once. I can prioritize. I can pick something up and do it for a while and then put it down and do something else for a while.
In the end, I am who I am and I know who that is: father, husband, son, brother, friend…who’s just trying to write a few good songs along the way.
I may not sell out shows or “hit the big time” but that doesn’t really matter. I may not become CEO of some dynamic firm but who cares?
I want to write music and have it be heard. I would like to get on stage again at some point, both as that solo singer-songwriter on a stool but also plugged in with a greasy band in a dive and make noise that rattles walls and souls…but it will happen when it’s right for me…and not because I’m desperate to recapture my youth or make up for lost time or anything of the sort.
I also want to be a good member of the music community here in Houston. I want to cultivate solid, collaborative relationships through Cathedral Records and I want to tell our collective and individual stories.
We all have a story to tell. All those stories are important and should be heard.
That’s one of the most important things I want for Cathedral Records…to be a storyteller. To document our collective experience as we’ve lived this life in music. These lives we live, they’re so different yet we are bound by our passion, our creativity, our need to share our thoughts and visions and the voices in our heads and by being willing to put ourselves out there to the world…naked and unashamed.
I am a songwriter. Really, at my heart that’s what I am. I may not be a good one, may not be a popular one but that’s what I am. No matter what I’m doing in life as a father, husband, son, brother, friend…it always comes back to needing and wanting to write songs along the way.
Cathedral Records is how I stitch everything together. It’s the tie that binds all the different pieces of my identity. It is the label through which my own music will be published but it is also the medium I have chosen to provide support, encouragement, and maybe even a little guidance to the Houston music community and to provide a resource to the younger aspiring musicians coming up behind us trying to figure out how to do this music thing.
That will take a lot of different shapes. I’ll provide representation to artists I think need to be heard and help them get their message across. I want to help venues and artists connect in a healthy, productive and mutually beneficial manner. I want to advocate for independent artists. I want to encourage collaboration and cooperation among the artists so we can all benefit and I want to brag about and promote all the incredible people in our community.
I want to tell our story.
In the coming weeks I’ll be sharing stories about some of Houston’s most interesting, dynamic, talented, and passionate community members. I hope you all enjoy reading about them as much as I’m enjoyed hearing them tell their stories to me.
So things have been quiet in the Cathedral from a musical perspective. I’ve barely picked up a guitar, much less recorded anything in far too long but that hardly means my life has been that uneventful.
That in mind, I thought it would be important to bring folks up to speed because there’s a lot going on with me as well as with our beloved music community.
So let’s start there!
First off, I think the biggest thing going on right now is the work that Matthew Davis Buehrer of Yawp Records is doing in the community with Rock 4 Recovery. If you haven’t heard, he’s opened a non profit venue just outside of downtown devoted to helping returning veterans through the power of music and fellowship. Matthew has been instrumental in installing equipment, helping to get incredible sponsors, and spreading the word on the incredible work this organization is involved with. PLEASE make sure you visit their page, get involved if you can, and stay on top of all the great things that will happening there. It’s as worthy a cause as there is in this world and a great example of what our community can do to make the world a better place.
Also, a band that is close to my heart, The Glass, has just released their new single off their upcoming album. Visit their site to not just listen but watch an incredible video they shot in the studio. These are great people, fantastic songwriters, and I’m so very excited for what they’re doing. They have a show coming up on January 28th at Notsuoh so be sure to mark your calendars.
Jealous Creatures played a fantastic show at Notsuoh last week and we’re all looking forward the news of their next show. They continue to be one of the most genuine, encouraging, and supportive community members in all of Houston. We’re lucky to call them our own!
There’s so much more going on that it’s hard to include all of it but that’s a taste of what’s happening at the moment.
On my end, I am approaching graduation. I’ve got just a few courses left in my MBA program and will be “walking” in May. I’m glad I can finally see the end of this long challenge but at the same time, I’m already looking ahead at what comes next.
I’ve recently secured a new domain. I’ll be using www.jasonrbecerra.com to publish professional articles and share content related to my work outside the music world and building my “brand” in hopes of taking that next big step in my career. Right now the URL directs to an online portfolio with a sampling of different pieces I’ve written here as well as in other areas and am looking forward to what the future may hold as I continue to try and marry my professional interests in communications strategies, change management, disruptive technology processes and the like with my passion for music and social issues.
At home my son is evolving from a small little baby to a kid. It’s incredible to watch his personality develop. He’s headstrong and energetic, if not maniacal and relentless haha.
I’m looking forward to a break this summer after school lets out and as my son turns two in hopes that I’ll be able to join many of you out in the venues and shows. It’s of great frustration to me that time doesn’t allow me to do more in the community, enjoy live music, and visit with all of you.
As far as Cathedral Records, my biggest goal for 2017 is to launch the Podcast Series. I have invitations out to some fantastic and interesting community members and I look forward to sitting down with them to have some really insightful discussions about our community, music, their projects, life, the universe, and everything.
For now, that’s about it. Please keep tuned not just to Cathedral Records but to all my friends’ websites, Facebook pages, and YouTube channels because they’re the ones out there making magic every night, living the life, walking the walk, and modeling what it means to be great musicians and members of our great big family and community.
So last night was a night like most others save for the fact that a new song started to take shape. I posted the rough first take to Soundcloud and asked the missus to take a listen.
She reacted the same way she always does. “It’s sad.”
We have this discussion every time I write something new and I go back through my demos and point to this song or that song and say “look it’s happy, it’s even in a major key!” and she says “NO…it’s SAD!”
She’s hears my music differently than I do but last night as we were going back and forth on the nuances of sadness verses melancholy I finally had to admit that yes, the new song, and even the song I used as an example of a happy one, are both kinda sad.
That got me thinking.
This morning I played through my entire track list on Soundcloud.
She’s right…there is an undercurrent of sadness, of reflection, self-doubt, and melancholy that runs through everything I write.
Last night, and often when this discussion comes up, she asks me if I am a sad person and takes it personally when I confess that, well, yeah…I have always kinda been more of an Eeyore than a Tigger…but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m “sad.”
I’m content with my life. I think I have a great life. My wife and I have built something pretty awesome. We have a beautiful home full all the luxuries middle class America (and credit cards haha) can afford us.
Most importantly we have the most gorgeous, perfect, incredible child anyone in the world could ever wish to have.
My parents are a blessing and, while I have but a few friends, they are true friends.
But that doesn’t change the fact, I am very melancholy. When I think about myself it’s usually in terms of what I can’t do, what I didn’t do, what I should have done. I worry. A lot.
I always have. There’s just no getting around it.
Two years ago, on my 38th birthday I wrote a song and the line says “Funny you should ask, yeah it’s birthday. 38 and still full of my teenage angst.”
That’s as true now at 40, as it was then at 38, at 28, and at 18. I’m sure it will be true at 48, 58, and 68.
The song also says,
“But through it all I’ve found myself in a good place
I’ve got a good wife and a kid on the way.
Though I’m always down, and I like to complain
That’s just how I’ve always been and always will be.
But oh my love, I love today.”
I think, as much as anything I’ve written, that last bit captures where I’m at in life, certainly since getting married and even more so since the birth of my son.
As much as there are parts of my day-to-day, parts of my overall life that infuriate me, depress me, or act as a hot wet blanket, I am very grateful, very humbled, and yes “happy.”
That doesn’t mean I’m not still addicted to my sad. I still bathe in self-loathing, doubt, and the frustrations that come with carrying a lifetime of baggage around with me…but that’s just how I am.
It doesn’t mean I’m not “happy” with my wife, son, and life in general. It just means…well, I guess it just means I’m “THAT” guy…I’m that guy that writes sad songs because, well, it’s how I get it out.
I don’t write songs with anything in mind. I never have. I began writing songs out desperation. I needed the combination of words AND music to get certain feelings out of myself. Most of those feelings, I guess have been sad in one way or another.
She challenges me to write a “happy” song. She’s not the only one to have done so over the years.
From the perspective of a songwriter, someone who approaches it as a craft, it makes sense to stretch myself but when I’ve tried to do that, it feels disingenuous. I’ve never sat down to write a song as an artistic exercise…at least I’ve never succeeded in completing a song like that. I always toss it away because it just doesn’t feel right.
When I sit down to write, I’m not thinking about quality or structure or style, I’m just trying to get something off my mind, or out of my guts.
Sometimes I sit back and listen to what I’ve created and I think “hey, that’s not a bad song.” It seems almost coincidental though…like I managed to get my feelings out AND it might be enjoyable for someone to listen to.
I don’t know. That’s not really for me to judge though. I just sort of judge my songs on whether they sound good to me and whether they expressed what I needed to get out.
Bottom line, my songs are a reflection of who I am…obviously. And while it’s true that there has always been a thread of melancholy in both my life and my songs, it doesn’t mean my wife has failed me or that my son does not inspire anything short of jubilation.
Besides, “sad” songs are almost always “better” anyway haha…when I think of all the songs that cut to my core, that inspire me, that embrace me soul, they’re all sad songs. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way.
Like I said, I guess I’m just “that” guy…38 (well 40) and still so full of my teenage angst. 😉
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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?
To contact Renee for all your baking needs you can find her on Facebook or Instagram.
Remember – support local artists of all kinds, all the time.