Oh what a night!

So last week I found myself doing something I had not done in quite some time. After a long day at the office, I raced home to change clothes, pack up a couple of guitars, my amp, cables, music stand, and headed to spend the evening in front of a packed house.

Butterflies swirling, sweat beginning to bead on my forehead, pulse picking up a bit, I toiled away at soundcheck hoping to get things set up before the crowd filed in…most performers know that feeling we get just before the lights go on and we hit the stage. There was that minor panic when I flipped on the amp to find nothing coming out but it turned out to me a simple flip of a switch.

Oliver, my new roadie, is still getting the hang of things but I think he’s got real potential!

This was no run-of-the-mill gig though. Nope. I’ve played packed shows at the Arena Theater and George R. Brown, I’ve played in empty dive bars. But this ladies and gentlemen…this was The Night.

I was invited to sit in with Girl Scouts troop 114011, aka the “Sweet Squirrels” to help them earn their music badge.

That’s right, no smoky bar full of disinterested girlfriends staring at their phones, band mates complaining about the sound, or getting the stink eye from other bands on the bill. Nope, last night was perfect.

I spent the evening at their weekly meeting and helped these lovely and wildly enthusiastic young ladies earn their “Junior Music Badges” and “Music Fun Patches”.

I gave a brief presentation on the history of acoustic and electric guitars, how harmonicas work, and some of the great players and songwriters associated with each instrument with particular attention paid to some trailblazing women like Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, and a couple of modern artists like Norah Jones and St. Vincent.

We listened to “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles and compared it to three international versions. We enjoyed “Gul Gul Gul Är Var Undervattningsbat” by Sweedish singer/songwriter Per Myrberg, “Submarino Amarillo” by the famed Barcelona group Los Mustang, and then we listened to Willy Chirino’s salsa-flavored take from his 2011 album, My Beatles Heart.

We discussed the differences and similarities and then turned to lyrics and songwriting before taking our own stab at writing a verse using the same meter and melody of Yellow Submarine. Lastly the girls each took turns exploring the different instruments we had: guitars, piano, a little organ, some percussion instruments, and I made sure that each of them went home with their own miniature harmonica. (Parents, no need to thank me. The pained and knowing faces you made when you realized you now lived with a passionate harmonica player is thanks enough haha)

These young ladies were so engaged and enthusiastic that I could have spent all night answering their fantastic questions. They picked up on some of the most subtle nuances between the different versions of “Yellow Submarine.” One girl noticed that there was a tambourine buried in the mix of Los Mustang’s version while another picked up on a slight echo on Per Myrberg’s vocal.

Their questions came in rapid-fire bursts, hands rocketing upward in hopes of being the first to be acknowledged.

“Why is that guitar hollow, but that one isn’t?”

“What is that made out of?”

“When did electric guitars start getting really popular?”

“Who invented the guitar?”

So too were their answers bursting with thoughtful enthusiasm when prompted with a question.

“So who likes to write poems or stories?”

That question was greeted with a loud chorus of “ME! ME! ME!”

“Ok, so where do you get the words from?”

One girl’s answer exploded more quickly than her hand could even raise, “Oh I know, I know, I KNOW! My head!”

Another girl answered that she got her inspiration from reading other stories and poems while another shot up, almost jumping off the floor to say, “I get them from my heart!”

Are you kidding me?!

How can anyone sit in front of a group of kids like that and not be inspired, humbled, and thankful?

It was truly one of the most gratifying and joyful evenings I’ve spent as a musician in I don’t know how long. One of Cathedral Records’central goals is to cultivate creativity and music appreciation among kids who may have the interest but not necessarily access or guidance. It’s not just about promoting and assisting current artists, it’s about helping guide the next crop of players who are just getting started.

 

I’m truly grateful to the troop leaders for inviting me into their circle for the evening and letting me spend a little while sharing what little I have to offer with their wonderful daughters. I’m also very thankful to the young ladies themselves for being so wonderful and engaged. It really warms this cold heart and inspires me in so many ways.

I hope to have more opportunities like this because I believe nothing keeps us young and inspired like being around young and inspired people.
I encourage ALL of my fellow musicians throughout the community to seek out and embrace these kinds of opportunities. It’s good for the community, it’s good for the kids, and it’s good for you.

Until next time….

Be Well and Kind,

Jason

“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. 🙂

 

 

Women Rock!

I’ve been listening to Michelle Miears a lot lately. Her new album is stellar and I’m looking forward to publishing a piece on her soon.

I recently wrote a piece on Tessa Cole of PuraPharm and she did an incredible job performing our national anthem at a recent Houston Dynamo match.

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?!

The Breeders

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.

Veruca Salt

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.

Garbage

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.

Juliana Hatfield

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!

Lisa Loeb

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.

Sarah McLachlan

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.

 

Concrete Blonde

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.

Belly

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.

The Cranberries

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.

Until next time,
Be Well and Kind,
Jason

 

 

 

Can you feel it?

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear…

Perhaps it’s the gentle shift from Houston’s brutal and persistent summer to the crisp chill we woke up to these last two mornings but there’s definitely a new energy in the air.

What started with a Houston Press blog written by He Who Shall Remain Nameless led to an inspired and spirited discussion on Facebook after Sarah Hirsch of Jealous Creatures shared it among her friends and fans.

Sure, the threads had plenty of heated criticism of the blog in question but what was more striking, and reassurring, was the spirit of collaboration, of community…there was a “We Can” spirit throughout the discussion that was really quite inspiring.

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds

Within a matter of hours, writers, including myself, quickly logged into their dashboards and wrote. We wrote about what defines a music scene, what makes it great, what helps it be “awesome.”

The Houston Press quickly followed with two terrific pieces. One, by writer/musician Eric Smith, gave a very unique assessment that was greeted with immense praise. You can read that article here.

The Houston Press also published another well-received article shining a light on 10 local groups that should be at the Austin City Limits festival this year and it’s exactly the kind of piece most of us, if not all, like to see. With links to videos and informative bits about each group, it provided both the connoisseur and anyone just dipping their toes in the water of independent local music everything they need to start digging deeper into some very noteworthy groups. Read it here.

Shortly thereafter He Who Shall Name Nameless posted a follow-up article essentially claiming “mia culpa.”

Then…it happened. Tessa Kole of Musicians’ DIY Fight Club dropped the bomb.

With a fiery, inspired passion she sounded the most intense call-to-arms since “Workers of the World, Unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains!”

It immediately sparked fervent discussion and frantic sharing which has energized my beloved community in a way I’ve not seen in years.

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

So where do we go from here?

First I think it’s amazing how things work today. Just 20-25 years ago, I would have read an article like that one that got all this juice flowing and I would have mentioned it to my band and we would have talked about it, shrugged our shoulders and gone to practice. Hundreds of bands and musicians would have read the article over coffee around town, argued its merits and gone about their day…but that’s not the way things work anymore.

The internet has connected us to such a degree that within an hour we can all be talking and brainstorming and sharing ideas and making plans.

But again, where do we go from here? All this energy…all this talk of “we should” and “we totally could” and “Yeah we need to.”

Will it lead to action beyond clicking “like” and “share?” Or…will the next cool meme pull our collective attention? Or our next gig or our day job or those plans we made to hangout with our buddy?

Let’s not let this die.

Organizations like Musicians’ DIY Fight Club and Cathedral Records, HAAM, and Houston’s Songwriters Association are just a few of the places aimed solely at providing songwriters and bands whatever they need in the way of support, information, guidance, and a platform from which to let their music be heard…and for audiences to find artists.

I’m so inspired this morning because the scene I came up in twenty-some-odd years ago was a much colder place. Bands seemed to be so critical and condescending towards younger groups.

There was a machismo that seemed to drench a lot of bands that felt they were “higher up the ladder” and venues seemed all too happy to take advantage of as many bands as possible by charging them to play, refusing to pay out even when these groups drew the “minimum” crowd requirements, refusing to help promote events, or even supply the minimum back line equipment any self-respecting venue should have if they’re going to offer live music.

Back then I remember my little band, my first “real” band performing at the Oven over off Montrose and Westheimer. Most of you will probably remember this place.

We played there several times but one night in particular was special. We were on a bill with Japanic. I had heard the legend and knew Josh Barry from being close friends with his brother but had yet to witness their glory in person.

We were taken to school that night. Japanic was everything we weren’t. Confident, proficient, sexy, intelligent, talented…haha.

But you know what? There was no snark. There were no “good effort guys.” We were congratulated on our set, were asked to hang out for their set, Josh even borrowed my snare drum when he had a problem with his.

They were so humble, so willing to share their experience and knowledge that it really made an impact on me both as a player/performer but as a member of the community.

Aside from performing with my father, sharing that bill with Japanic is about as perfect a memory as I have in my musical life and it helped shape who I am now and why I wanted to establish Cathedral Records.

So this is what I want:

I want to see this wave carry all of us further into an era of even more collaboration, support, cross-promotion, and cooperation.

I’m currently trying to put a schedule together where I can begin booking sessions for the Cathedral Records Podcast Series. I’m looking for bands, songwriters, retailers, amp techs, service providers, enthusiasts…all members of the community who want to have their voices heard.

I’m actively seeking community members who want to write columns here on this site…no boundaries. Write about your band, write about your favorite records, whatever. My voice should not be the only one featured here.

The third big project I’m hoping to launch as we head into the new year is a series of educational sessions. I’d like to bring community members, be they players, instrument techs, retailers, bands, or venue owners into the Cathedral to hold information group sessions targeted towards the younger, aspiring musicians and songwriters.

I want to provide kids with what I think we all agree would have been very useful when we were kids: knowledge gained through experience.

If we can let these kids know about how to network, how to negotiate with venues, how to self-promote, how to get better at their instruments, how to take care of their instruments, how manage their time, what to look for in instruments/effects/home recording equipment…WHATEVER.

I think doing these things contribute to the overall community. It keeps us connected and provides us with opportunities to network but also to provide a service and blessings to the larger community, particularly the younger members who, just like we did, are walking blind in what can be a very complicated, stressful, and intimidating environment.

So there you go – that’s my piece for today.

Really and truly everyone – let’s keep all these good vibes going and turn it into real action.

Contact me through www.cathedralrecords.com or through Facebook.

Be well and kind,
Jason

 

The eternal issue – The Houston music scene

A recent Facebook discussion really helped me focus and frame this post that has been percolating for some time now.

Cathedral Records was born out of a desire to help cultivate and support the music community and to this point that has taken the form of championing bands, venues, retailers, photographers, and other members of the scene here in Houston as well as around the region.

The biggest debate in our music community has always been about the viability and vitality of our scene.

Do we have one? If so is it any good? Is it getting better or is it on the decline? Is it true that only cover bands draw crowds? Are venues really supporting the artists? Why don’t fans come out?

These are all questions that get thrown around bars, practice rooms, and of course on internet discussion threads.

Here are some of the challenges I, and many other musicians and enthusiasts, have brought up in regards to Houston.

Houston is too spread out. The geography does not lend itself to a thriving scene because people live too far away from wherever the bands are playing. Suburban areas do not support live music in any form beyond cover/tribute bands or DJs. Inside the loop there lacks a central, walkable area with multiple venues ala 6th Street in Austin, the French Quarter in New Orleans etc.

Venues don’t do enough to promote artists or drive traffic, instead leaving that vital aspect of running their business to the performers themselves. Compounding matters they don’t provide ample backline resources and don’t pay musicians a reasonable amount…if at all. This puts all the responsibility of promotion, marketing, and capital investments in the hands of the musician. Musicians thus have to become marketing professionals on top of masters of their chosen craft and then invest in their own PA equipment in addition to the investments they’ve already made in their instruments and training…which then requires additional investment in transporting all this equipment and specialization in live sound engineering.

Fans don’t come out. Artists hammer Facebook, Twitter, make fliers, and shout from the mountain top but in the end all they get is a tepid response from the same friends and family who have been going to all their shows since they started playing and struggle to attract all the people outside their immediate circles who seem to be shouting from the mountaintop that there’s never anything to do in Houston, that the live scene stinks, and that if only there were good clubs and bands out there playing they would go out.

The media doesn’t do enough to promote the existing community of artists and venues or to cultivate further development. The “media” as it pertains to Houston is typically the Houston Chronicle, the Houston Press, and whatever other small distribution, local and free papers you can think of. The Chronicle is…well…the Chronicle. Chron.com’s entertainment section is littered with click-through photo galleries, recycled time and again, and articles about national artists and gossip. The Houston Press, for all its stated goal of championing the alternative audience who are disaffected by “mainstream” media has its own problems with consistency and quality. What they share is an apparent desire for quality content opportunities that will generate interest and those oh-so-important ad impressions and clicks.

Bands. Bands are also a problem discussed in our community. They don’t work together. They are cliquish and cynical. They don’t like to share bills or cross promote or they get a sniff of regional/national attention and they “forget where they came from.”

I’ve been playing in Houston since I was a teenager sneaking into open mic nights at roadhouses, desperate for any audience I could find. I began “promoting” singer/songwriter nights soon after high school in a coffee/internet café (remember those?) shortly after graduating high school.

These were the same arguments my older friends were talking about then, the same arguments my peers have been having, and the same ones happening with the talented group of bands coming up behind me.

So what’s the point? What am I getting at?

The point is that while each of us puts our flag in the ground with one issue and proclaims that it is THE defining problem with the Houston music scene, the other issues continue to go on and others stake their flags in their opinion when really…we should be addressing the problems.

Here’s what I think makes a great scene and what I’d like to see happening and how I’d like to fit into that…and it’s very important to state: all of it is already happening in pockets around the city.

We’ll start at the top.

Houston IS big. It’s a giant wasteland of sprawl and concrete with more tan shopping centers and isolated communities than I can count. The inner loop – outer loop battle will rage on long after the “inner loop” becomes understood as Beltway 8. This isn’t a challenge so much as it is an opportunity. A band can “tour” without ever leaving the 713/281/832 area codes. Clear Lake, Galveston, Pasadena/Deer Park, Katy, Humble, Spring, Woodlands, Almeda, downtown/Montrose/midtown are all hotbeds of activity just bubbling under the surface. There are bands sweating in practice rooms and bars looking for acts that can help drive business. The inner loop does NOT have exclusive rights to talented musicians. They’re all over the place. Rather than looking at the inner loop area as “the scene” Houston musicians and fans need to see the larger picture and understand there are lots more opportunities.

I currently live outside the loop…and count me among the people who gets up for work at 5 am, drops my son off with my parents, spends 9 hours at the office, leaves, grabs my son, goes home, makes dinner, goes through the mail, cleans up around the house, plays with the baby for a bit before it’s time for him to go to sleep and then I pass out because I have to do it all over again. I miss out on basically every show ever because after doing all that I can’t fathom the idea of going out to see someone perform who isn’t going on until midnight in the Montrose or downtown somewhere. I would get home at 3 and have to “wake up” at 5 am.

Bands need to understand that while geography poses some very real challenges…so to do they provide an opportunity to go out to where the people are.

Which of course brings us to the venues: many have written excellent pieces on how venues take advantage of talent and often use the analogy of a restaurant “hiring” a chef to work for free because after all, it’s their passion to cook and they should be happy to be given an opportunity to cook for people…and oh by the way, you’re responsible for bringing people in…and oh, our oven is broken. It’s a very valid point.

Venues have for too long skated by for years using pay-to-play or by forcing artists to do their own promotion. As bands became too much of a “hassle” to deal with it, they brought in karaoke, DJs or just said screw it and went with a juke. Now…see it from their point of view. Running a business is hard and expensive…just like running your business as a musician. Investing in a proper backline, tailored marketing campaigns for each band, and the allocation of valuable real estate inside the club for a good stage is a big deal. They need a return on those investments. This, however, by no means whatsoever, excuses them for what I deem to be unethical dealings with musicians.

What is needed is real partnerships, real collectives among venues AND talent and the use of effective, best marketing practices to ensure success…and no, it’s not a sure-fire-overnight deal. Investors need to see the long-term returns and not bail at the first sign of danger. All too often venues agree to “test” live music only to fail at picking the right bands, giving them the right support, effectively promoting the event, and then giving up after one show because “it didn’t work.”

Just like musicians are expected to become masters of marketing and communications, so too do venue owners need to become adept at promotion and in creating effective, attractive showcases for bands…doing their research on which nights will be most lucrative and provide the most opportunity for growth.

I subscribe to the belief that “if you build it they will come.” But you can’t build it, only tell your immediate friends, only let people in between the hours of midnight and 2 am on a Wednesday, and locate your incredible edifice an hour away from everyone that would like to come. Fans, in the end, are the consumer. Venues and musicians are the vendors/suppliers/products. To connect them together you have to meet in the middle. Bands and venues have reach out to the audience in more ways than Facebook event shares and traditional calendar ads in the back of the Houston Press squeezed next to the rub-and-tug and escort classified ads.

The internet has provided a lot of great ways to connect with fans outside the traditional live event inside a club. Do live performances and broadcasts from your practice room..a “From the Studio” gig, as it were. Do an afternoon show on Saturdays or Sundays…these are typically down periods for venues but, particularly in outlying areas, could open up a whole new audience who, by the constraints of their M-F lives, are unable to participate in the traditional 10 pm – 2 am schedule of events taking place.

But fans have to do their part too. BUY the damn record. BUY the T-shirt. WEAR the T-shirt. TELL 10 friends you were at the show or are listening to the music. If you have time to take a picture of what you made for dinner, you have time to tag the name of the band whose music you’re listening to at that moment. If you have time to take a selfie at the show, you have time to tag the band and the venue. It isn’t enough to “like” someone’s content. Likes don’t pay the bills and they don’t generate new opportunities. Sharing is caring. Fans are a critical part of the equation and should step up their game.

Ahh…the media. Who doesn’t love ripping on the media. They write an article we love and they are a bastion of true journalism, objective, well-researched, and honest. Write something we don’t and SCREW THESE biased, ignorant bastards and their agenda!

The media can’t have it both ways as far as I’m concerned. They can’t proclaim their desire to give a voice to voiceless and then throw up a bunch of click bait photo galleries with pointless images of people walking down the street or sticking their tongue out at a music festival.

You don’t get to take the easy road. You also don’t get to outsource your content to independent bloggers, post their material on your site, and then say their opinions don’t reflect those of your editorial staff. Writers don’t get to sit back and essentially write entire pieces filled with inside jokes and obscure references letting everyone know how cool they are while essentially ignoring what they’re actually supposed to be doing – reporting and describing the music scene around Houston.

As a member of the community your role, as reporters/photographers/journalists is to shine a light on the good and the bad. Not every review needs to be glowing and they certainly don’t need to be advertisements hidden behind the mask of a news article. What I want to see is fair and honest reviews of bands across the city. I’m not just talking about bands that are drawing big crowds at the few “major” venues, those bands that are already getting some national attention. They absolutely deserve coverage and attention because these bands should be a shining source of pride and inspiration for every other group in the area.

BUT…what about that cool wine bar off Rayford that has a fantastic singer-songwriter showcase attracting some of the most talented people I’ve seen in a long time?

What about that circle of metal bands playing in Pasadena and La Porte…they are doing it old-school. Printing their fliers, sharing practice space and stage time, dolling out some of the nastiest and aggressive music in town.

Oh you haven’t heard of those? Exactly. People of the media – Do. Your. Job. Check your email and your snail mail. Go trolling usergroups and Facebook looking for content opportunities. End all your published pieces by asking for, not comments below to which you can make all those snarky responses you’ve had in your pocket, but for leads on new content. Get out of your comfort space. Leave the same four clubs you’ve been going to for the last three years. Houston is big and you’re supposed to support and serve all of it…not just yourself.

I’d like to see guest articles from band members themselves. I’d like to see updates on progress is coming along with different recording projects. Reporters should go to the many studios in town and see who’s working on what. Go to the practice rooms, the teen clubs. Get members of the Houston Association of Acoustic Musicians to write guest pieces. If you haven’t heard much from this band or that band, look them up and give a quick blurb on what’s been happening.

Now the bands…first…bands need to be good haha. Learn to play your instruments. Learn to write songs and be willing to put in the time, earn your scars, sweat, bleed, sweat some more. Sadly…in a way, that’s the easy part. We spend our lives doing that part. But then, when we want to share our music we’re faced with all these challenges I’ve spent close to 2000 words writing about.

Sorry but we DO have to cooperate with each other. We DO need to get out and network. Support other bands’ shows, share their calendar of events…cross promotion is critical to building a good, thriving scene. No matter how far along your band has gotten, never forget that you were just coming up once too. Offer your opening slot to a no-name group of kids in your neighborhood. Be mentors. Share what’s working for you. If you’ve found a great recipe for success, share it!

All too often I’ve seen bands become islands unto their own…afraid that other bands will glom onto their thing, stealing their trade secrets and render them somehow, less unique.

I’m a believer in a rising tide raising all ships. Bands that have had success will have MORE success if they help other bands build their brands and establish themselves. The more bands playing out, the more quality singer/songwriter nights happening, the more smoking blues jams happening all around this sprawling city the better it is for everyone.

Venues aren’t the best at promoting? Make it easier for them. Approach them with an entire bill. Three bands, committed to performing two nights a month…once every other week. Put together what you think is the perfect ad and work with the venue manager to get it into the papers, onto the social networks. Negotiate a rate – work out the details…anything is on the table. 5 bucks a person at the door? Fine…band takes 4 – house takes 1. Consumption gets split 60/40 to the house. That’s right bars…the bands deserve a cut of consumption. Deal with it. Those people are there drinking because of the entertainment you provide.

Once everything is ironed out, do a Facebook live session at the “contract signing” and then write a press release announcing this beautiful union. Blast it everywhere you can think..even if you think it’s pointless. Follow up with phone calls and invite reporters to the show. Venues need to print up nice color posters for the doors and small ones on each table keeping the event on everyone’s mind. It may take a couple months for both the venue and the bands to reap the rewards but if both are committed, it will work.

Oh…so no one is coming out on Tuesday night for your 10 pm show with four bands no-one has ever heard of in an obscure underground club in midtown? Well…how about playing a half-time set during a weekend roller derby bout? Make a night of it..play the national anthem before the bout, a quick half-time set of fan favorites and then rock the crowd with a 30 minute set of your best material. During the bout you’re networking, handing out fliers, supporting our roller derby gals and having a great time.

Look…no one said it was easy. No one said it was easy to run a bar/club. No one said it was easy to be a musician…in this city or any other. No one said that your favorite bands were going to be playing 5 minutes from your house at the exact time that you would have 45 minutes to devote to them that also perfectly coincides with you being in the mood for live music, and have absolutely nothing else to do.

Being a part of community is sacrifice, compromise, cooperation, and collaboration.

So when you think about why this music scene isn’t what you want it to be…don’t focus on what others fail to do about it…focus on what you can offer that might, in some way, contribute to building that community you wish you had. Encourage others to do the same. Take a look at Jealous Creatures. They are the living embodiment of how to do it. They work hard at social media, they collaborate with other bands, cooperate with venues and promoters and they put on amazing shows full of incredible music.

And remember – Cathedral Records is here to promote, to counsel, to collaborate, to share, and to help in any possible way.

I want to bring everyone – musicians, venues, and related service providers together in a way that enriches all our lives.

Let me know what I can do, how I can help. If you’re struggling with a particular aspect of your endeavor, get with me and let’s talk. Need help filling out a bill? Let me know and I’ll help find a good band.

Just recorded an album and are thinking “well…now what?” Let’s talk about your options related to distribution, promotion, copyrighting, and publishing.

Are you just starting to write songs and want to get some recordings done but don’t have the tech savvy to do it yourself or the funds to go to some of the established studios in Houston? Call me. Cathedral Records has a great project studio and some of Houston’s best musicians at the ready to help in any way we can.

Are you an owner of a club? I definitely want to hear from you. One of my goals is to promote a monthly event called “Cathedral Records Presents…” It will be a showcase for aspiring songwriters to share their music and their passion. Let me help you with best practices related to building an audience for your venue and with negotiating fairly with talent.

Finally – thanks for reading of course – this is obviously a long piece but I hope it provides everyone with a morsel of food for thought.

If your take anything away from this it should be this: “the scene” is never dead, it’s never alive. It’s never awesome and it never sucks. It is what we all make of it. Let’s ALL do our part to make the best of it for all of us to enjoy – musician, venues, vendors, and fans together.

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/