A Conversation with Eric Andersen
Mike Ragogna: Eric, what brought Albert Camus to your attention?
Eric Andersen: Oliver Jordan a painter friend of mine from Cologne suggested we do a project together. Oliver is one of the premier portrait painters in Europe who studied under German painters like Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter and who also happens to be married to a French-Algerian woman. Camus was primarily a great writer of fiction and playwright, and he put his philosophy into his writing. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 and his books included The Stranger, The Plague, The Rebel, and The Myth of Sisyphus. Over dinner one night, Oliver asked if I would be interested in participating in an exhibition where he would create paintings of Camus along with lyric texts and songs I would around his works. I said, “Yes, of course, that sounds interesting.” I didn’t realize at the time what I was getting into, because it took me over two years to study and absorb this stuff. So over a French Moroccan dinner in Germany, I got on the path of Camus. I began to read a lot–not every single book–but many, and I’m still reading more. Over the course of two years, he did the portraits and I came up with a prose poem and four songs that were extrapolations from his novels and books of essays. I got his essences from the books and they filtered through my poetic system. In 2013, we arranged to do a show in Aix-en-Provence and his daughter Catherine attended. Albert Camus died in a car crash in 1960 not far from Aix.
Besides Catherine, Alexandre Alajegovic, who runs the Camus foundation and archives, also attended the exhibition and performance. We did the show and a lot of people came and it was beautiful, I performed the songs, which I admit were in pretty rough shape when I did them there. Later on, I made the record in Cologne. Because of a follow up exhibition and concert at a museum in Bonn, Germany, Oliver made a beautiful catalogue of portraits of Camus with my Camus song texts and an included CD of the recordings. A vinyl company called Meyer Records in Cologne picked up the CD and put it out with Oliver’s portrait of me on the cover and a portrait of Camus on the back. It’s a four-song vinyl EP and CD called Shadow And Light Of Albert Camus and was released last year.
By the way, I recently got an idea. One book and song I didn’t do was The Myth Of Sisyphus about his punishment by the gods was to roll a boulder up a mountain and chase it back down to the bottom only to roll it back up for eternity. Of course, he represented to Camus the absurd man: a man performing a pointless task for all eternity. The concept of the absurd and how to use revolt to counter notions of meaninglessness and suicide as a solution was vital to Camus and important. I wrote a new song I will perform in New York called “Song of Sisyphus (A Song of Rock ‘n’ Roll).” Camus was a deep poet who came up with ideas of ultimate frustration like “The confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” That was one of the pillars of his concept of absurdity. I just poked my way through these words and images and studied them.
MR: Were you ever exposed to his works prior to this?
EA: I had read some Camus in high school, I think everybody did.
MR: What was the writing process like?
EA: These songs just kind of wrote themselves. I just sat there and took dictation and they came out. In fact, the thing with this vinyl record company and this painter is even more interesting in the sense that we’re doing a series of writers and I just finished recording an album of Lord Byron. For this, I wrote music for fourteen works–twelve of them were his lyrics and two of them were mine and Oliver did the accompanying paintings. We debuted the album in a show at his ancestral home outside of London in Nottingham last September; it was beautiful. Then in Cologne in February we recorded the album. It’s called Mingle With The Universe: The Worlds of Lord Byron. “Mingle with the Universe” was Byron’s line…if you can imagine someone coming up with a line like that two hundred years ago. You think, “Man, who am I talking to, John Lennon?” Remember Lord Byron was the first real bad boy hero of Rock. He was pre-James Dean, pre-Elvis, pre-Cobain, pre-Lou Reed. Wine, women and song, and worse, in those days. Rumors of homosexuality dogged him followed by rumors of incest with his sister Augusta. They forced him to leave England though his poems sold out like hot-cakes–like new Beatles albums! Girls swooned over him. He was the template of a rock hero and has remained unsurpassed ever since. A true, free spirit.
A lover once called him “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Byron understood the cynicism of celebrity and fame. He said it two hundred years ago, “A celebrity is a person that everybody knows but he doesn’t want to know.”
MR: So when will Mingle With The Universe be released?
EA: The new album’s coming out early fall on Meyer Records. Oliver Jordan did the cover portraits of Byron and me.
MR: You have an ongoing creative relationship now with Oliver Jordan with this new way of taking on poets and philosophers. Did you see this coming as a continuing chapter of your life?
EA: No, not at all, and it’s even more unbelievable because Oliver has suggested a brand new project for us. He contacted the son of Heinrick Böll, the German post-war writer who won the Nobel Prize in 1972, and who also happened to be from Cologne-a great city for artists, by the way. During the war, he served a full term in the German army and was a vehement anti-Nazi. He was one of the starters of the Green Party. He died in 1985. His centenary is coming up next year, so I’ve now begun a project about Heinrich Böll and his son is helping me and sending books. We’re planning to do concerts in Berlin and Cologne in 2017–towns where the Heinrick Böll foundations are. It’s almost like, “Okay, there’s a writer, he’s really great, and he’s dead. Call Eric, he’ll compose an album.” [laughs]
MR: [laughs] This does seem like a creative phase for you? What do you go through when you take on the nuances and the ouvre of these people?
EA: It’s not too unusual. Picasso would turn to Delacroix, he would turn to El Greco, he would turn to Goya, and he wouldn’t make copies of these painters, but he would do the process of extrapolating the information to make something new. I think as you get older you become less of an activist and become more philosophical. I don’t like politics at all, so if you have anything to say it can be done in another way. I think the works of Camus, Byron, and Böll are very important. Camus’ philosophy is, “I revolt, therefore I am.” But he was also an optimist. He felt he was always in the eternal summertime of his life. For us, and in times of upheaval and violence we hope poets like these and others can shed some light on these darkening years.
MR: Eric, at seventy-three years old, it seems that you’re still a student.
EA: Well, you’ve got to do something in your retirement. [laughs]
MR: [laughs] But you’re not retired!
EA: I don’t know how I got into this stuff but I tell you, it’s wonderful. The whole story of how this happened is as strange as my involvement in the initial readings and recordings. We did this thing down in Provence where I sang and Oliver send all his paintings down and we had a good time, and then Catherine Camus and Alex kind of disappeared. Catherine and I had written to each other a few times, she’s very charming, but then we did the show in Germany and I was on to Byron. Then in July, I got an email from Alex, Catherine’s right hand man and he says, “Look, we want to do something to celebrate Camus’ visit to New York, a seventy-year commemoration,” which is written about in a book Herbert Lottman wrote called “Camus in New York.” So I’m thinking, “I don’t know what to do, why are they calling me?” I’m sitting in a chair in Holland watching the raindrops streaming down the window. They’re talking New York City this spring, in March. They’ve got to be joking. It’d take years to set up an exhibition in New York City. I just scratched my chin.
The only person I knew was Stephen Petrus, who I only knew through email, but we became friends because he was the curator of the Folk City show at the Museum of the City of New York last summer and fall. I had a vitrine with a guitar in there and a lyric of “Thirsty Boots” on a napkin and some things like that. The show received a great review in the New York Times and Post. Stephen had also written the companion book for Oxford University Press, Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival.. It’s pretty wonderful, actually; people gave their recollections, and it sold like hotcakes. So they extended his show for two months and me and Stephen are corresponding, having a great time, we can hardly wait to meet and drink some wine and walk the streets of New York. I get this email from Alex in Provence and I said, “Hey Stephen, you won’t believe this, I just got this email, they want to do something in New York City and we need a curator.”
So Stephen picked up the ball. Viggo Mortenson would read the speech that Camus gave at Columbia University seventy years ago to the month in French–an incredible speech–called “The Human Crisis,” and everyone understood him. In those days people spoke languages. So Camus was wandering around New York City for three months and he had a great time–The Bowery, Chinatown, Harlem. They wined him and dined him, The New Yorker wrote stuff on him and his new book L’Etranger was published in English in New York during the period when he was visiting. It was a big deal. It’s also a very New York thing. So when I got to New York City Stephen and I had a meeting, and anybody we knew who could possibly be interested in this at all—for example our contact at Anthology Film Archives got us a place to show the Camus films.
We knew of somebody who had a contact at the Bowery Poetry Club. Stephen was working at the historical society and we couldn’t get space even for Patti Smith. We got turned down on things we thought we wouldn’t, but then new things came up, like The City University of New York for Patti Smith and Alice Kaplan, who is a biographer and foremost authority on Camus at Yale. She’s writing his biography, and I was thrilled because she liked my Camus album. She thought it should be an opera. Things came out of the woodwork, you know? We were trying to figure out how to get Patti Smith involved, and we got her, but she’s hard to reach. My friend Laurie Anderson, who didn’t know much about Camus, it was not her thing, but she got a hold of Patti and Patti said yes, because Patti loves Camus. We got this little picture thing together over a three-week period and no one could have believed this could happen. Suddenly, it’s exploded.
MR: Did you feel any kind of enlightenment with the audience as you presented this information?
EA: When you get into somebody like Camus or Byron or anybody terrific, your whole brain explodes and you think, “God, everybody should know about this.” This is medicine. This stuff is good for everybody. There’s an excitement. It’s a weird thing how this exactly happened. When you’re writing a song you think, “I could tell anybody how this happened.” The song’s done and ten minutes later the bubble’s burst and you don’t remember a thing. Complete amnesia. When I’m looking at this Byron stuff now, I can’t remember what he wrote and what I wrote. I’ve got to go back now and dig up the original material. It’s his songs and I did the music and switched things around to create choruses. There’s been absolutely no objection to his writing. No one says, “Oh, that’s dated.” Nothing like that at all.
MR: It seems that you’re shining a light on the roots of modern literature. By the way, I’m not sure if everybody reads Camus in high school anymore. Subject studies have changed drastically in English departments, not necessarily in a good way, over the last couple of decades.
EA: You’re probably right. I guess most people strive to get higher education not to learn about truth or beauty on this planet but how get trained for a well-paying job. But for me, writing is like a river journey. You struggle against the currents and report what is on the banks. It is the journey that matters, not the destination. And that holds true for the mind.
But the beauty of this is it can be looked at as a new thing, and maybe some heads will turn. Especially now, I think Camus matters because he was into non-violence; he was against the death penalty; he was into resistance but not revolution; he was the editor of the underground French resistance paper Combat during the war; and he was from Algeria, remember that. He was French but he was born in Algeria so the French never completely trusted him. He was very much into justice but not revolution, and that’s where he had a falling out with Sartre, because Sartre was a Stalinist and Camus saw that Stalin wouldn’t blink an eye sacrificing two million people. Collective interests were more important than individual lives in his jaded, communist way of looking at things. Camus couldn’t go for this because he saw if you go into a revolution and you get rid of the bad guys, you get the new guys in and they turn out to be bad, too.
MR: There has been a lot of philosophy in your personal works as well. Look at the topics within your classics Blue River or Be True To You, for instance. I think you already brought intellectual topics into your pop and folk.
EA: I think that’s probably how I relate to Camus, because first and foremost he was a writer of fiction. He was very thoughtful, very reflective and these things came to the surface and you were able to actually get a philosophical bent from his writings. He didn’t like being called an existentialist. Camus was an optimist, and I think these people who survive would agree with Camus’s statement that inside the writer is an invincible summer. They were fearless. Writers from these worlds are from countries without maps.
MR: You’re in a class of smart folk artists, those who really crystallized thoughtful intent in lyrics using the folk framework. What are your thoughts about this group of artists?
EA: Well, though it’s true we played acoustic guitars I never considered myself folk. I always wanted to be a writer and express original stuff. But I think being in the first batch of songwriters from the early-sixties Village that later would include writers like Townes Van Zandt, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, was to be a part of an exciting group, and mainly because of LP records, we could write and record longer songs. The jazz guys were really aware of that; you could take longer, extended solos. The advent of the LP was very integral to the course of writing. These people weren’t writing songs for a profit motive. They weren’t writing songs just to get an effect for three minutes–not to denigrate that, because remember there are all these great writers like Carole King and Dion [DiMucci] and that’s a world unto itself. What I’m driving at is that this kind of songwriting you’re speaking of is more exploratory, taking the song form with music and lyrics and using it to explore places that have never been explored before. In that way, it becomes a spiritual odyssey and it become philosophical. It was never intellectual.
MR: “Exploratory” is a great word for it, nice. However, when the next generations of songwriters that was inspired by you guys had success, it seemed like they’d only gotten the kernels of what you and your contemporaries was doing. Objectively, your class of songwriters was the gold standard of that medium.
EA: It sounds kind of arrogant, but I tell people, “You had back then five people writing about five million things and now you’ve got five million people who can hardly write about five things.”
MR: There you go.
EA: In the old days, there were all these external pressures, between the war and civil rights and the sexual revolution and all the things that were happening around people trying to envision a new kind of freedom and life. And just being young and feeling young and spirited in a world that regarded you as an alien, you were kind of in an outlaw mode. Before us were, really, the beats. Lou Reed was on the scene, too, but not in mine. He’s very important. I think because of the news cycle routines we’re bombarded with so much information, nobody has the time to sit down in an armchair to think about what it means. You don’t have a net fine enough to catch it–it just blows the net apart. I think that’s how these guys like Bush win elections. They deal with people on special issues. They might not agree or understand anything about what Bush would do in Iraq, but they do understand that he might give them a tax break on healthcare. There might be somebody who’s really into oil saying, “Let’s go into Iraq and let’s take over the oil wells.” So you get a lot of people who all have special interests and they do a patchwork quilt of victory to the White House. Not that he wants any kind of moral standards or ethics or beliefs or philosophy, just power. Just look around.
MR: I totally agree with you. I mean, how can one absorb all the information we’re bombarded with every day?
EA: I don’t think you can. It’s also the reason it’s hard to nail down a subject long enough to write a good protest song. I tried with “The Rain Falls Down in Amsterdam” on my album “Memory of the Future.” I wrote it in 1990 and I talk about attacking refugees and Jews. It was soon after the Berlin Wall fell.
MR: By the way, my first exposure to you was from Mary Travers’ recording of your Blue River song, “Is It Really Love At All?” I loved that recording.
EA: That’s interesting. You never know how people will stumble on to your songs.
MR: WNEW used to play your version of that song and “Blue River” with Joni Mitchell singing backup endlessly.
EA: Sony is going to put out a retrospective of stuff, a thirty-seven song deal. We’ve got to get that organized and get it out.
MR: Eric Andersen, what advice do you have for new artists?
EA: Camus said one thing: “I know of one duty: That is to love.” You have to have love for a person or a passion for what you believe. The job of an artist is to make the invisible, visible.
MR: That’s beautiful. That’s probably the most philosophical answer I’ve ever gotten.
EA: Really? It’s not so difficult. It’s pretty easy, I think.
MR: Looking back at “Thirsty Boots” and looking at yourself now, what would you tell your younger self that was first starting out?
EA: Writing is almost an unconscious thing. In fact, sometimes when you perform, you get into this trance state and everybody feels it. When the last note gets sung, we all go back into our worlds. I guess writing and performing that way is like mingling with the universe.
MR: That’s what you would tell the young Eric Andersen?
EA: I would go with Camus’ advice. Be fearless. Salman Rushdie has got to be the bravest writer walking around in the European world, he walks around with no protection and some Iranian newspapers just put another six hundred thousand dollars on his head before their last elections. Did you ever read Camus’s book The Fall? That’s something you should read. I wrote some things for that, one called “The Fall” and one called “The Judge Penitent,” which I’m going to perform in New York at the National Sawdust on April 16th. But Rushdie said something great that I believe. That the best way to fight terrorism is to not be terrorized, and to go about your work and not be afraid, even though it’s scary. He’s a very brave man and I have so much respect for him.
MR: You recently performed at the Folk Alliance, right?
EA: Yes, it was quite nice. A lot of folk people. [laughs] I’m not used to that. I don’t really live in the folk world so it was kind of fun…banjos and all that. And a lot of friendly talented people.
MR: There were a lot of young artists there, I imagine.
EA: Oh yeah, and they’re playing and picking and grinning and trying to do their things. We were shocked that there were very few agents for anybody to try to get any work. All these people spent all this money to go to hotels and fly in from all around the world and pay to be there and pay to do the performances and there’s not many people there who could book them a job. The agents were just basically selling their acts. It’s a very, very strange situation, this Folk Alliance thing. But what do I know? It was the first time I’d ever been to one. But they treated me very nicely as a guest. I was happy to be there, I saw Jack Elliott and David Amram, the guy who wrote the Broadway music for one of Camus’ plays, Caligula. He’s going to be with me at the Bowery Poetry Club performing Camus “American Journals” on April 10th. He just wrote this great symphony called “This Land” – a tribute to Woody Guthrie that he recorded with the Colorado Symphony. He’s eighty five years-old and he’s like a living lesson to us all.
MR: What do you think when you revisit at “Thirsty Boots”?
EA: I still love it because it’s very Camus-like. He really is more appropriate to what’s going on than anybody would know or believe, but they’re going to find out. “Thirsty Boots” is a very gentle song of rebellion and resistance.
MR: So, really, you’re going full circle.
EA: Oh yeah, and I’m still going. There’s more artists to come in our recording series in Cologne. We’re thinking about doing Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet. Maybe Baudelaire. There’s a lot of stuff coming up for me. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun work. Any great artist, if you look around from Voltaire to Byron to Camus and Böll to Lorca, these wonderful, great artists who all had to suffer the huge sorrow and basically try to be optimistic about life–and our own living song masters Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen — Joni Mitchell — Patti Smith–all these people have to carry on the good struggle knowing we have to face and live with the great sorrow that maybe the good guys lost.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
Eric Andersen website: http://www.ericandersen.com
Eric Andersen will participate in the upcoming NYC retrospective CAMUS: A STRANGER IN THE CITY a series of events from March 26 – April 19 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the French writer’s one and only trip to the U.S.A in 1946. The festival includes dramatic readings, film screenings,
concerts, book talks, and panel discussions. The Camus series are presented and organized by the Albert Camus Estate in collaboration with NYC historian and curator Stephen Petrus. http://fr.scribd.com/doc/300331181/Camus-Booklet
Sunday April 10, 2016 6:00–7:30 PM
The Bowery Poetry Club
(between Houston and Bleecker)
New York, NY 10012
Readings: Albert Camus On New York
Admission is free
Saturday April 16, 2016 9:30–11:00 PM
80 North 6th Street
(Entrance on Wythe Street)
Brooklyn, NY 11249
ERIC ANDERSEN SINGS ALBERT CAMUS
Eric Andersen will be accompanied by:
Michele Gazich (violin), Robert Aaron (multi-instrumentalist),
Jagoda (percussion), Steve Addabbo (guitar)
Tickets $25 Advance / $35 Day of Show
FOR MORE INFORMATION AND LISTINGS OF ALL THE EVENTS:
CAMUS: A STRANGER IN THE CITY
MICHAEL KROLL’S “SOUL OF A SUMMER DAY” EXCLUSIVE
According to Michael Kroll…
“Here at the onset of an uncertain Spring, my mind is starting to lean into Summer. This is a song about looking around and suddenly finding yourself perfectly and effortlessly in the flow of the day. And when that happens in New York City…when you and whomever you’re with are center stage at the center of the known universe…well that’s a pretty tasty feeling. This track features Kenny White (Shawn Colvin, Peter Wolf) on piano, Andy Green (John Cale, Velvet Underground) on guitar, Matt Lindsay on bass, Tony Mason (Joan Osborne, the Meters) on drums, Rembert Block, Ann Buckley, and Arissa Rench on vocals.”
A Conversation with Kerry Fenster
Mike Ragogna: Kerry, you have a new album that’s bringing attention to special needs, especially in children. What brought you to recording a project with this focus?
Kerry Fenster: Even though it’s technically the first album I’ve made of its kind, there was sort of a lineage to it. I’ve worked at summer camps before; I’ve written some songs while working at a summer camp in Massachusetts; I’d written songs with campers there that were children’s songs, so to speak. I’ve always had this penchant for writing fun, children-related records in my past, but with this particular record it was my experiences working at a school for people with autism. I was just totally inspired by the students. I had really good rapport with a lot of them, and so many of them were so musical. I’d have my acoustic guitar in class with them, or often they’d earn breaks, like a “Music with Kerry” break and we’d go outside the class and play music. The students there and the experiences at that school mixed with my previous experiences writing songs with neuro-typical kids and just made me want to write an album. It just hit me like a ton of bricks. There were certain lessons that were kind of recurring in the classroom that were really good for the students, so the songs were based on those lessons.
MR: Can you give an example of how one of the songs came together?
KF: Yeah! In the classrooms, a lot of the times, the kids got nervous, and maybe they’d get a little physical, a little tactile. They’d want to slap their desk or their body or break boundaries with the person next to them, so a lot of times in class we’d say, “Quiet hands,” and that would just work. It was very simple. The thing with autism is the students are often very intelligent, but they can get overwhelmed by social complexities and things like that, as we all can, really. A lot of times people will try to communicate to people on the autism spectrum and they’ll over talk or come at people with too many words. Everyone can relate to this. When someone comes at us with way too much detail, it’s just sort of overwhelming and kind of irritating, so I just learned that less is more. Being economic with concepts is a really good way to communicate, and not just with people with autism. Even though this whole concept was inspired by and kind of written for people on the autism spectrum, really these concepts apply to everyday life. Economy of speech became a vehicle. Saying, “Quiet hands” is two words and so many students would just get it. There’s actually a music therapist who had several principles about therapy and one of them is using music as a carrier of information, and that’s where I was going with it.
MR: With this album, you’re educating while creating catchy songs. How do these songs help you express what you need to personally while simultaneously educating?
KF: That’s a great question. I always think about Jim Henson. He was a huge inspiration to me, not because I’m a puppeteer obviously, we’re talking about a musical endeavor, but I think that he was so good at that. His stuff was so appealing to children, and it was appealing to adults, and it was obviously creatively fulfilling, and there was an educational aspect, and he was making the world a better place, and it was funny, and it was kind of subversive. I think the same thing about The Marx Brothers. There’s something about the ability to mix making people smile, making people learn, but there’s sort of a wink-wink, nudge-nudge subversion about it. To be able to pull all that off in one project is amazing. I just kind of applied that to this. I just wanted to mix everything together. I don’t think things need to be so compartmentalized, like, “This is for children.” I wanted to make it inclusive. I wanted to make it for everybody, so I just thought about the songs and I said, “Well let me have them be fun and upbeat for kids,” but I wanted them to be sophisticated enough that parents wouldn’t be rolling their eyes at it like when you hear Barney for the five hundredth time, where it’s kind of musically condescending. For me, that became the creative fulfillment. It was the game of, “I want it to be for kids and adults.”
MR: What brought you to music as your creative outlet?
KF: I come from a very musical family, my mom’s a singer and a piano player so from a very young age I was singing and playing with her at the piano. My dad’s a professional appreciator, so we listened to records a lot. There are recordings of me at four years old writing original songs; I just really connected with it. I remember writing songs and wanting to play instruments. Whatever I picked up, I could kind of play, maybe not well but I just understood how to communicate with music. Starting in elementary school, I started taking band I played cello and I played trombone and all these more classical instruments. Then right around ten, eleven, twelve, I started picking up electric bass and electric guitar and then I was done, because I had the ultimate songwriter’s instrument. Right away from junior high, I was in rock bands. That was like the age of rock ‘n’ roll for me, thirteen or fourteen. I got into punk rock and then I got really into Caribbean music and a lot of ska and reggae, bands like The Clash were really big for me because they mixed punk and reggae, which I thought was really fun. I was in a band in New York that moved out to L.A. and that’ what brought me here. Then I ended up working at the school and making this record.
MR: How were you introduced to the school and how did that lead you to recording this project?
KF: I moved to L.A. with my band and that was a good time. We had a lot of fun successes, but also as a musician you’re like, “I have to pay rent and eat,” so you end up teaching lessons. I was teaching private guitar lessons here and there and that was fun, but I wanted something a little more full time because I wanted more money. I knew I wanted to teach because I liked teaching guitar, and I had good experiences working at summer camps, so I wanted to work with people. I found out online–maybe on Craigslist–that there was a school in L.A. that was focused on students from pre-school to twenty-two years old. They needed some help there and I thought, “That sounds pretty cool.” They weren’t specifically looking for a music person, I guess they just needed a classroom aide, but I knew I’d be able to weave music into that position, and it totally worked. I was basically the assistant to the teacher, but I always had a guitar in there, and the kids were always working for music breaks. We just brought music into the program a lot, and that’s sort of how the job became the musical project.
MR: You have a physical disability, but it hasn’t stopped you from being able to express yourself creatively. What was it inside you that brought you to your attitude of, “Eh, whatever, no big deal.”
KF: That’s a great question, Mike, and I can only guess. It’s kind of similar to where the music came from, where I could place some of the responsibility on my parents for giving me so much music, but also it was just in me and I wanted to write. I feel the same way about my fortitude about my disability. My parents were really good, they never treated it like it was a disability. They were always like, “Get up and do that.” They always expected me to be able to do things, and I think that expectation was very helpful and the right thing to do. That’s also mixed with something in me. I never, ever had a thought in my head of, “Oh, I’m going to use this to be lazy,” or be a victim, or weak. I don’t want to be any of those things, I want to do everything I can, and if I can’t do something I’m not afraid to ask for help. Every challenge that we get is a test of, “How much can you take?” Every hardship, no matter what it is, is really just a challenge to step up to. I just never saw it as a bad thing. I like being different, I like being unique, and having my hand the way it is, I just thought it was cool. My heroes in movies always get their hand cut off. I watched Star Wars. I’m like, “Sweet, I’m Luke Skywalker.” I watched Evil Dead and I’m like, “Sweet, I’m Ash.” There’s like a whole theme with all my favorite heroes. I just never wanted to feel powerless, or like I couldn’t do something, so I just lived my life thusly.
MR: And your parents helped foster that in you. Do you feel like you’re bringing that to the kids in class?
KF: I do. I’m glad you just asked that, because I feel like that is a huge motivation in this project. It’s kind of like passing the torch. If I was lucky enough to have a personal sense of value and ability and my parents reinforced that–the ability to pass that to another generation of kids whose parents maybe don’t empower them or who just feel insecure about their disabilities–I think it’s completely my responsibility to lead by example. You can have a disability, whether it’s cerebral or physical or whatever the “developmental disability” is, as they call it these days. You can’t always cure it, it might be something you have forever, like with me, but it also means you can have an excellent life and step up to a lot of challenges and surprise the hell out of a lot of people including yourself and you can do more than maybe you thought you could. That’s definitely a motivation for this record.
MR: What was the recording process like?
KF: That was super fun! Richie Gallo, my manager, knew of a producer he had worked with back in the day whose name is Mark Mazzetti, and Richie and I really believed in the songs. So we got in to the studio in Hollywood with Mark and his engineer Anthony Brodeur. It was a really intimate recording. It was just Mark, Anthony, and me with a couple of guest instrumentalists coming in some days. It didn’t take very long. It was over the course of a few weeks but it was only a few days per week. It was the ultimate work experience; we had stuff to get done and we wanted to do it well, but it was so much fun.
MR: When it was fully recorded and you listened to the project from top to bottom, what was your impression?
KF: I couldn’t believe it was happening. I had dreamt of this whole idea several ideas prior, so to hear it on record and to see it happening was just amazing. It was the stuff of dreams. It’s fantastic. Unfortunately in life a lot of dreams of our don’t come true, it’s just a harsh, cynical truth, but sometimes they do! I had this idea years ago about, “I want to write these songs for the kids, it’s all the stuff we talk about in class that’s going to come out like rock ‘n’ roll,” and then I made my own really cheap demo that sounded okay but kind of demo-y. But then I met Richie and he championed the whole thing. We got into the studio and it was the same songs, but they sounded great. I was so impressed with the production quality and Mark’s work in the studio. It was so impressive. I also really liked collaborating. I was so impressed with how Mark and Anthony understood the vision and the ways they produced the songs to deliberately to make the songs sound like rock ‘n’ roll but also with a children’s edge to it. I was just so impressed with the whole thing.
MR: What does “success” mean for this album, and maybe even your career as it moves forward?
KF: I just hope that people like this record, it’s just a labor of love for me. It was so much fun to make and I really hope that the people I made it for and everyone else can enjoy it. Like a good Jim Henson project, anyone can enjoy it. You can listen to it with kids, you can listen without the kids, I just want everyone to like it. I have lots of other songs ready to go, this was just sort of the first little bit, but there’s lots of volumes already written and ready to go. Hopefully, if people like this one then the Muzic School record label that we created can make more projects to follow up “Songs About Us.” And, of course, there’s other types of endeavors, even though I would love to keep doing this forever. There’s music I’ve written that’s not necessarily for children, there are so many projects out there, so many different collaborations and things to tackle, hopefully this will springboard all of that.
MR: I always ask, what advice do you have for new artists? I also want to ask what advice you have for artists with disabilities, but that totally undermines everything you just said, doesn’t it.
KF: Well done, Michael. My advice for new artists is just keep creating, never stop, because the one function of an artist–before you get money, before all those lofty goals come into play–is to create stuff. It’s like being an inventor, but your medium is the arts. You just want to keep creating. Just don’t stop. Don’t let anyone stop you. Don’t get discouraged, just keep creating, stay focused. The more you make, the greater you amass your own body of work, the more you’ll be encouraged to do more. It’s kind of like the more you do it, the more you’ll want to do it, because you’ll see that you can do it. “Look at all these songs I made!” They might not be perfect, you won’t love all your creations the same necessarily, but the more you’ll do it the more you’ll be inspired to do it, and the more you love what you do typically the more other people will love what you do and you’ll continue to strive and make quality work.
MR: Picture it’s your last day of school and you’re giving advice to the students you’ve worked with musically. What advice would you give them?
KF: It would be very similar advice. Don’t be discouraged, and if you love something, you just have to follow it; you’ll be unhappy if you try to ignore it. But I’d also probably want to recommend to my kiddos at the school to not let things get you down. There was sort of a bit of typical issues with neurosis and being depressed, because a lot of these guys are aware of their disabilities, and sometimes when you’re aware of them that can be a downer quite frankly. I would definitely recommend just don’t get down, everybody’s different, everybody has some kind of a disability, everybody is somehow talented and somehow not good at something. No one’s good at everything. I would just remind them, you are loved, no matter what you do, no matter what you have. You’re a person and you are thus lovable and awesome and have something to offer the world.
MR: What’s os Kerry Fenster five years from now? What will have happened?
KF: We’re talking about 2021?
MR: Yes, President Whoever’s second term.
KF: Are we talking jetpacks? Because I’m really interested in jetpacks, and Jeff Goldblum’s teleportation devices from The Fly.
MR: Jeff, you don’t want to abuse the machine like Goldblum did, just a heads up.
KF: [laughs] I would like to think that we’ve released more volumes by Muzic School. Songs About Us is just volume one. I would like to think that this record was endeared and enjoyed and that we make more records and that I’m able to make music not just for this population–although I want to continue to–but for all different audiences and keep expanding. Getting to collaborate with other artists is such a joy for me. This one was kind of just me with some help. But I would love to expand on collaborating and just keep making more records and keep amassing the body of work I’ve done, and keep trying to make the world a better place through music. This record is amazing and I’m so psyched to be part of it, and I’m just so proud of everybody that was part of it, because we all came together. This is not a typical record, it is kind of an unusual amalgam, it’s for special needs, it’s for kids, but the music isn’t necessarily kiddie music. It’s a niche and I just want to give a shout out to all of the people involved with it, my manager, the producer, the engineer, all the people who came in and did some really great backup, everyone just got it. It’s not the easiest record in terms of making it, a lot of people were sort of like, “I don’t get it, is it for kids? Is it for adults?” I’m just really proud of the people who collaborated on it, and they’re amazing.
MR: That definitely evokes one more question: Just how much did The Beatles’ White Album inspire this album?
KF: [laughs] Clearly, the lineage is there. “The White Album For People On The Spectrum” is what I want this album to be reviewed as. And in a way, that could be argued, because just like the White Album, there is a definite production narrative through line where you can hear that these songs all belong on the same album and the sequence is very deliberate, and also like the white album the genres are a little bit varied. There’s a heavier rock song, there’s a really cute, light folk song, there’s a real up tempo ska song. Hopefully, in the years to come, this will be revered as the White Album of special education records.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
DAVID NYRO’S “WHAT HAPPENED TO US ALL” EXCLUSIVE
Seattle-based singer songwriter David Nyro shares his first single “What Happened To Us All,” one of several he’ll be debuting via the Koral Young Group in the coming months. The song’s production and pop vibe hearkens back to the classic songcraft of the ’60s and ’70s but retains a modern edge.
According to David Nyro…
“The song reflects how we start out so young, brave, idealistic, hopeful, and full of promise. Then, as the years go by, we get to a place – a bittersweet place, where we look back and wonder: what happened to us all? What happened to our young selves–”Where did your long hair go” from “Caroline, No” by the Beach Boys, which I reference in the song–and our aspirations, as well as all the people that have paraded by–come and gone–in our lives.”
CAVE STATES’ “KINGDOM COME” EXCLUSIVE
According to Cave States’ Chris Grabau…
“One of the best examples of our band’s creative process can be found in the Danny Kathriner penned single, ‘Kingdom Come.’ The song is an example of stark contrasts. Danny’s song is a bit of a rumination over the loss of a loved one. However, instead of composing a song in a sad minor key, we decided to take a more upbeat approach by adding a backdrop of lilting piano and backing vocals–sung by guest Paige Brubeck of Sleepy Kitty. We hope the result is a song that strives to create meaning from two poles; light from dark, life from death; or even perhaps solace from grief.”
True Life will be released on April 29th. More information about the band can be found online here: http://www.cavestatesmusic.com
A Conversation with Chris Janson
Mike Ragogna: Chris, you and lots of country music contemporaries will be gathering for the Tortuga Music Festival. What separates this country music festival from others and what are you looking forward to at the event?
Chris Janson: Just gonna do my thing, sing my songs, and have a good time.
MR: What makes the Tortuga Music Festival important?
CJ: Fans. Fans make every single show important. Tortuga is a great example of great fans.
MR: Do you have your set all worked up and ready to go or do like a more improvisational approach?
CJ: My show is totally improv. I write down a list of songs, print them off, and then just feed off the energy of the crowd. More fun that way.
MR: What is it about the festival atmosphere versus the pure concert event that energizes your the most?
CJ: Again, the fans!
MR: Are you good friends with anyone on the bill? Have you recorded, written or performed with any of them to date?
CJ: All my buddies are playing! And yes, I’ve recorded with some, and written a handful of hits for others.
MR: What do you make of your rising star? Do you have any observations or have their been any interesting lessons as you’ve been becoming more popular in country music?
CJ: It’s important to stay humble and be grateful, two points in which I keep in check daily. I’m blessed to have this job…it’s the best.
MR: In some ways, do you still consider yourself a new artist?
CJ: I’d rather be considered new than old.
TORTUGA MUSIC FESTIVAL
Day One, Friday, April 15th is Dierks Bentley, returning for his second appearance at the festival. Joining him that day will be Old Dominion, Randy Houser, Tucker Beathard, Kristian Bush, Ryan Hurd, and Cam.
Day Two, Saturday, April 16th, features Tim McGraw headlining the main stage. Also performing Saturday are Sam Hunt, Chris Janson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kip Moore, Bobby Bones and his comedy band the Raging Idiots, Kelsea Ballerini, Jon Pardi, Courtney Cole, A Thousand Horses, Waterloo Revival, Muddy Magnolias, and Old Southern Moonshine Revival.
Day Three, Sunday, April 17th, will be closed out by headliner Blake Shelton. Also scheduled that day are Billy Currington, JJ Grey & Mofro, Thomas Rhett, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Elle King, Joe Nichols, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Native Run, Chase Bryant, LANco, Walker County, and Drew Baldridge.
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