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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
One of my goals in music as it is in life is to cultivate a collaborative environment where we not only help and encourage our peers but those coming in behind us.
I heard somewhere that the children are the future and that we should teach them well and let them lead the way…or something like that. 😉
I think back to when I was just a kid, exploring my dad’s record collection and then adopted his guitar. I was always surrounded by musicians, music, poetry, and literature. I bathed myself in it but the one thing I didn’t have was a how-to guide….other than Mel Bay’s Level 1 guitar book.
My father, having seen every angle of what a life in music could be was reluctant to encourage me to pursue it as a vocation. Too many incredibly talented musicians living hand-to-mouth, gifted artists toiling in obscurity, playing for tips in cantinas after their careers floundered…they left him wary of leading his son into that life.
Audiences are fickle, venues and managers are always quick to take advantage of the talent…too many reasons to name really…all had led him to nudge me towards a career in education while continuing my passion in music as a side project instead of attempting to make it a full-time career.
Thus, I never really made an “all-in” attempt at that life. I’ve worked professionally in business since the age of 18 while attending university and fitting music in where I could…always feeling like I was living two lives…never fulling fitting in either.
Today – as I begin kissing the tender age of 40, I often look back, sometimes fondly, sometimes with more than a hint of angst. Time is a son-of-a-bitch and I know so much more about musicianship, about practice, about how to approach songwriting, performance, contracts, venues, booking and marketing, and…most importantly, the incredibly limitless career opportunities there are for musicians.
So this is one of Cathedral Records’ primary goals – to redefine success in music, to pass on information and experience, and to cultivate a collaborative environment where aspiring musicians can fulfill their measure of their creative identities.
Tessa Cole, of Musicians DIY Fight Club, says it best when she recently remarked, “Nobody knows the right questions to ask someone in a band like someone else who plays in a band!!”
Exactly, and the other side of that is that no one has the answers to questions someone has about being in a band like people who have been in bands their whole lives.
With that in mind, I reached out to the Houston music community via Facebook and asked, quite simply, “what would you tell your teenage self?”
What I received was a collection of enthusiastic and reflective responses that I’ll share with you here.
One of the first responses I received was from Catherine Dietrich, CatZilla…also known as the “High Priestess of Music & Shenanigans at Stiletto Broadcasting, an independent online radio station that aims to empower, inform, and entertain the Houston music community with a passion for women in particular. She’s a perfect example of what’s possible if you open your mind and get creative. Her refreshing response was “I’d smack my little face and say ‘NO FEAR!'”
I know for me personally, fear and insecurity were both driving forces in all aspects of my life…and definitely musically. I didn’t have the courage to step out on my own, was afraid to put maximum effort into certain projects because I didn’t believe it would “work out,” whatever that means.
Ronnie Main, a dear friend, incredibly talented guitarist, and general manager of Guitar Center North Houston had a very practical suggestion: “Practice, practice, practice!” AMEN!
I would add to that, practice the “right way.” Be sure what you’re practicing is leading you somewhere and not just aimless noodling that doesn’t push you creatively. I’ve found over the recent years that my most productive practice sessions involve learning songs outside of my normal interests that have different chord voicings or patterns. I find that exploring different directions lead to new ideas and stretch my musical vocabulary.
Sarah Hirsch of Jealous Creatures had a great piece of advice that I would definitely have told myself as well. She said, “start a band earlier.”
Such a simple notion but truly invaluable. So many of us learn in isolation. I spent hours upon hours alone in my room digging through Beatles songs and learning chords, pausing/rewinding the tape player our lifting the needle and replaying passages trying to figure bits and pieces out. I wrote my first batch of songs in a complete vacuum. It wasn’t until after high school that I truly met a great musician about my same age and began collaborating, sharing ideas, and we started a band.
That idea of a bunch of kids who have no idea what they’re doing making a god-awful racket in the garage is the stuff that leads to magic. Never be too humble or scared or intimidated to just start a band.
This leads me to another fantastic answer, this one from Ashley Newman of Ashley Newman photography. “I would say to never sell myself short.” She continued, “We all start somewhere but what I had to offer, and offer now, is worth it.”
Yes it is.
One of the most important things I would say to myself, and to every aspiring musician looking for their path, is this: The possibilities are endless. It’s not just about being a world-famous performer like Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty. That’s not the only form of “making it.”
Being a musician does not mean living in squalor or in your parents’ house at the age of 40. There are full-time, financially and artistically rewarding career opportunities for musicians who have the drive, the skill, and the work ethic.
Music is literally everywhere. Our lives are bathed in it. Film, TV, children’s shows, commercials, marketing and public relations, video games…that music is made by professional musicians. Singer-songwriters need instrumentalists to round out their bands. Performers need sound engineers. Musicians, despite the explosion in home recording tools and resources, will always need studios with skilled and experienced engineers and producers. Public and private schools have music departments that need teachers and staff. And so on and so on.
Get rid of the stereotypes and myths about musicians. Say it loud, I’m a musician and I’m proud!
Embrace your future, it’s happening every moment of your life and a life in music is there if you want it…just open your mind to the possibilities and be willing to put in the hard work.
Music is no different than engineering, practicing law, or being a doctor. It takes sacrifice, dedication, and effort. It takes time to master your craft but if you commit yourself to it, you will be rewarded.
In closing, I want to urge my fellow community members – be good stewards, look out for that young group of kids that may be opening for your opening act. Introduce them to the crowd. Get to know them. Ask them to hang out for your set and then talk afterwards.
Community elders serve a vital role and we all have incredible experiences and a wealth of knowledge that should be shared with those following along behind us.
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.”
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.