Last Spring, I embarked on a great adventure. Packing my ukulele, a battery-powered keyboard, and my songwriting journal, and I spent a week alone camping in the remote red rock desert of Southern Utah. No internet, no cell phone service, and not a soul for miles – except for rattlesnakes (I saw three!) and a chorus of coyotes that howled every night. It was magical. Songs poured out of me, starting with an optimistic ukulele number called “Flying Machine.”
However, shortly after returning to my home in the mountains, something changed. The long, hot summer days felt colder as the climate of my country became increasingly charged with negativity. The atmosphere of divisiveness and fear found its way into the music, its sharp edges softened by my heart's longing for peace and unity.
I felt powerless and afraid. One morning, I woke up with a song in my head that I call “Slow The Devil,” a gift from the songwriting gods and the closest thing I’ve ever written to a protest song. I realized that the music was helping me through these dark times of uncertainty and disconnect.
This is not the album I set out to create. I had intended to write something quirky and desert-inspired, but the muses had something different in mind. This is not a collection of political songs – far from it. These songs are about Demons, Dreams and Duality. They're about Darkness & Light and above all, Unity & Division.
Blending electronic and organic instrumentation from producer extraordinaire Caleb Loveless, the tracks range from beautifully intimate to majestically epic. The album is a journey, beginning with the call to arms of “Slow The Devil,” to the battle cries of “This Means War,” holding onto our hearts through the bleak aftermath of “Fallout,” and bringing us all back together in the healing harmonies of “Bit By Bit.”
My hope in sharing this music is to help restore a sense of community and connection, by exploring these darker emotions, and through this process, finding solace and reconciliation.
I don’t believe that “Unity” means we should all be the same. For me, Unity is about celebrating diversity. My last album was about self-expression and loving what makes you different. This new music is about loving what makes others different.
TOP 3 ALBUMS OF 2015
My three favorite albums from 2015 each had a totally badass lady at the helm. Grimes, Susanne Sundfør, and Callie Crofts of My Fair Fiend all write their own songs, self-produce their records (!!), and basically run their whole operation. Grimes and Callie Crofts even designed their own album artwork. These women are forces of nature and are a huge inspiration for me, as shrewd businesswomen and uncompromising artists.
Susanne SunDFØr - Ten Love Songs
Sounds Like: Symphonic Baroque meets aggressive electronic music.
Favorites tracks: Memorial, Fade Away, Darlings, Slowly, Delirious
Why I Love This Album: Every once in a great while, an artist comes along who makes music I love so much that I feel it was made just for me. Sundfør's ethereal otherworldly soprano soars with gut-wrenching vulnerability over epic orchestration and hook-laden pop beats. It is clear that Sundfør delved deep into her emotional well for Ten Love Songs. My favorite lyric from "Memorial," my favorite song of 2015: "I know you are heartless, 'cause you took off my dress and you never put it on again."
Hear more: http://susannesundfor.com/
Grimes - Art Angels
Sounds Like: Candy-flipping at a dance party on the threshold between Heaven and Hell.
Favorites tracks: laughing and not being normal, Flesh Without Blood, Realiti, Pin
Why I Love This Album: When asked about the title of her latest album Claire Boucher (AKA Grimes) recently posted on Facebook "I refer to the demons in my head as Art Angels." Her new album is unapologetic electronic dance-pop, filtered through the dark creative vision of a true oddball. Dance-pop is normally not my thing, but I couldn't help but get completely addicted to this album. Grimes is operating at the height of her artistry, as a songwriter, a producer and a visionary.
Hear more: http://www.grimesmusic.com/
My Fair Fiend - Making Monsters
Sounds Like: The illegitimate love-child of Maynard James Keenan (Tool, A Perfect Circle) and Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeahs).
Favorites tracks: Trapped Like A Ghost, Tourniquet, Making Monsters, Symbiotic Stare, Midnight Sun, Very Long Shadow
Why I Love This Album: I'm very proud to say that I was a Kickstarter backer on this album, because I knew it was going to be extraordinary, and Making Monsters didn't disappoint. Callie's vocals range from pristinely angelic to tortured banshee, singing hyper-intelligent poetry over aggressive riffs and haunting guitar hooks. Every track on this album showcases masterful songwriting and world-class musicianship.
Hear more: http://myfairfiend.com/
Here are my other favorite albums of 2015, in no particular order:
Adele - 25
The Lone Bellow - Then Came The Morning
Alabama Shakes - Sound and Color
Josh Ritter - Sermon on the Rocks
Florence + the Machine - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
James Bay - Chaos and the Calm
Torres - Sprinter
FKA twigs - M3LL155X
Aurora - Running With The Wolves
Favorite Songs of 2015
I'm on a list-making roll! So here's a Spotify playlist of my favorite songs of 2015...
The "Born In The Desert" music video premieres Wednesday, Sept. 23rd on GroundSounds.com. Here's the story behind the video....
Last January, a team of 12 people took an 1860’s piano, an antique clawfoot bathtub, a drone, 50 gallons of water, a pressure washer, and two golden retrievers into the middle of the Southern Utah desert to shoot a music video.
The first thing you should know is that the Utah desert in January is brutally cold, even during the day. Although the temperature was in the 20s, I had my heart set on emerging from a clawfoot tub filled with black water. So first, we had to figure out how to get a several-hundred pound tub and 30 gallons of water into the middle of the desert. Director Bryce Johnson just happened to have a giant water storage barrel. My parents happened to have a Jeep and a trailer. Next, we had to figure out how to make the water warm enough that I wouldn’t get hypothermia. Our first evening of filming, we lit a small fire under the tub and used hot coals to heat the water. It worked… sort of. I was still hypothermic by the time we wrapped for the night.
The next day, we ventured into a slot canyon, where the sandstone cliffs create a chasm so narrow that you literally have to squeeze through the tight sections. Not recommended for claustrophobes. If you are lucky enough to be in a slot canyon at exactly the right time of day, a single godlike beam of sunlight will stream down to the bottom of the canyon, and the effect is magical. Luck was on our side, and our timing was perfect for capturing the glorious slot canyon light.
One of the reasons I love working with Bryce is that he is a genius with creative problem solving. I told him that I wanted to make it rain, in the desert, at night, and he presented a water storage tank, a pressure washer, and lights. So we made it rain, epically, and again I became mildly hypothermic.
For our last day of filming, we returned to the mesa with the piano and the tub. This time, I was adamant that the tub water be warm. We lit a giant bonfire under the tub and stoked the coals until the water was hot. It was fantastic! I doubt there was ever a hot tub with a more majestic view.
The whole experience of shooting this video was incredible, even when I was on the verge of freezing to death. I couldn’t help but think how extraordinarily fortunate I am to live near such an awe-inspiring location. I’m more fortunate still to have a team of such talented people who not only braved the freezing weather, hiked through slots, and hauled a tub and piano, but they did it with such enthusiasm! Words cannot express my gratitude for the people who made this video happen, including my Kickstarter backers, who made this whole adventure possible.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about the golden retrievers, one of them was lying in the shade behind the piano while we were filming. The other one decided that the soapy black tub water was delicious.
I was never one of the cool kids. Growing up, I was always a little weird. Maybe it’s because I grew up non-Mormon in Salt Lake City, or maybe it’s because I read too much Tolkien or spent too much time at the piano instead of playing sports and socializing. Or maybe I was just born weird. At first, I was proud of being one of the weirdos- I liked being different. My weird friends and I got creative with hairstyles, clothes, and jewelry. We talked in silly voices and made up languages and hand signals, created alter egos for ourselves, and accentuated the things about us that made us unique.
Then high school happened. Then college. Then real life. As I grew older, I became less and less comfortable in my own skin. I wanted desperately to fit in, and my insecurities only got worse, to the point that I was beginning to self-destruct.
During the process of writing the songs for my album, I started to feel like myself again. I’m learning to embrace my inner child, my inner weirdo, my inner freak. My song “Theatre Noir” is a grotesque love story about a couple of circus sideshow freaks, and the message of the song is about celebrating what makes you different. “We’ll glorify your scars, you’ll be the greatest star!”
A few days ago, director Andrea Peterson and I gathered up a film crew, my band, and a cast of specialty circus performers, fans, family, friends, and “freaks” to shoot a music video for "Theatre Noir" at O.P. Rockwell, a Prohibition-Era Speakeasy-style music hall with a Wild West vibe. Our cast of characters included aerialists, a snake-handler, a unicyclist, a fire-dancer, a strongman, a contortionist, a tattooed lady, and a whole bunch of other wonderful people dressed to impress!!
I told Andrea before we shot the video that I wanted the atmosphere of the video to feel dark and beautiful, but fun and celebratory at the same time. I was hoping to create a feeling of camaraderie among the cast, so that it felt like one big, strange, happy family. Of course, there’s no way to force that to happen, you just have to hope for that magical chemistry.
The day of the shoot is a total blur for me. I met a lot of awesome people, saw some amazing performances, and confronted my snake phobia. I was blown away by how everyone there personified the message of the song- these are people who love the things about themselves that are unique, and are expressing themselves in such incredible artistic ways. I remember watching the group and thinking, “These are my kind of people! This is my tribe!!”
In the days following the shoot, I’ve noticed that the cast members are now all friends on Facebook, connecting with each other, sharing photos and talking about release party plans. This is exactly the magical chemistry, the camaraderie that I was hoping for!!! I could not possibly have asked for a better group of people to create this music video, and my heart is so full of gratitude and love for everyone involved. Welcome to Theatre Noir!!!
A few years ago, I was living in New York City working in theatre. When I wasn’t touring or in a show I took an intensive scene study class, and when I say intensive, I mean that it was INTENSE. Crying, screaming, throwing things, cursing, and occasional mild violence were all par for the course. For an actor, it was glorious.
One evening, we did an exercise in which each student brought a photo or painting of a person, and then worked to bring that picture to life. My choice was a photo of Janis Joplin, in the midst of an agonized wail. I have always been amazed by her rawness and freedom. Especially during my days singing musical theatre, but even now, I am her polar opposite- with ten years of classical training, excellent vocal health, and a conventionally pretty sound. I wanted to act the way Janis sang.
To get into character, my teacher encouraged me to sing one of Janis’s songs. At the time, I was feeling stuck in a bad relationship, so “Ball and Chain” seemed an appropriate choice. As I began to sing in front of my peers, something happened that I had never experienced before… I let go of all inhibitions. I sang with every ounce of passion I possess, with utter disregard for how I sounded or appeared. While performing, I was vaguely aware that my classmates were screaming and cheering, and only when I finished the song did I realize I was drenched with sweat and tears.
In all my years of performing, I had never sung with such honesty and abandon. The class instructor got down on her hands and knees and started bowing. Two of my best friends from the Boston Conservatory were there and were also crying- they didn’t know I could sing like that. I didn’t know I could sing like that. It was a moment of profound discovery.
I realized that, for me, singing is my way into my truest form of self-expression. Not long after that class, I decided to put acting on the back-burner to pursue a career as a singer/songwriter. The first song I wrote was called “Burning Now.”
The Prospector stares into his mason jar moonshine. A good barrel-aged whiskey here would cost you, but the clear moonshine was cheap and it burned all the way down. You welcome the burn on a night as cold as this.
Most of the residents of this tiny mountain town came here looking for gold, but ended up settling for silver. They spend the days slaving away in the musty, dank mines. The Prospector had a life once, and a woman who felt like home, but life is short and home was just a dream… He’d left that life behind when he came out West. He came here for gold, and gold will be his salvation.
He downs the last swig and slowly lifts his glossy eyes to the bartender, holding out his empty jar. The bartender shakes his head “Any more and you won’t be able to find your own way back home."
The Prospector eyes the bartender and grumbles “The way back home is hard to find, when you’re love drunk and moonshine blind.” He shuffles out of the saloon and into the frozen night.
It’s Christmas Eve, and the saloon is a ghost town. The Prospector sits at his usual barstool, away from the small handful of patrons. A woman in a red dress sits further down the bar, sipping a mug of wine and studying the small group of men, looking for prospects of a different kind. Her eyes land on The Prospector, and a sudden wave of homesickness washes over him. Her gaze pierces the walls of his memories and sees straight through to the man he once was. He quickly glances away, but she moves to join him.
“Merry Christmas,” she offers with a coy smile. The Prospector grunts. The bartender serves up another round of deliverance. After a long silence, the woman brushes back a golden ringlet and tries again, “Don’t you have someone to go home to on Christmas?”
The Prospector pushes back his barstool and stands “The way back home is hard to find, when you’re love drunk and moonshine blind.” He tips his hat and heads out into the cold.
The saloon is packed, stinking of booze and the sweat of men who’d spent the day working in the mines. The gentlemen in the crowd check their pocket watches every few minutes, ready to ring in the New Year. The Prospector’s usual seat at the bar is already occupied, so he orders his whiskey and searches the room for a quiet corner. There she is again, the woman in the red dress. Their eyes meet and this time it’s her turn to quickly look away, rejected. His eyes linger a moment longer, then a seat opens up at the bar and he hurriedly claims it. Another whiskey. A cheer goes up from the patrons- must be midnight. Another year. Another whiskey.
The Prospector feels someone watching him. He looks over his shoulder, scanning the room, but the woman in red is nowhere to be seen. The saloon is starting to empty out. Must be late. One more whiskey. There, at the end of the bar, it’s the woman in red smiling and talking with one of the gentlemen. Time to go home.
The Prospector holds the saloon door for another group of patrons, as he gazes out into the January darkness and braces himself against the bone-chilling wind. It will snow tonight, he thinks. Suddenly, a cry cuts through the quiet rumble of conversations. The woman in red isn’t smiling anymore, and the man she was speaking with grips her arm and growls roughly in her ear. The Prospector moves toward her, then stops himself. No. He leaves.
He stumbles up the street out of town, turning onto a dirt road glazed with snow and ice. The pine trees hover over him, whispering with each gust of wind. The Prospector’s eyelids grow leaden and each lumbering step seems too difficult to be worth the effort. The woman in red. He stops, the wind goes still. After a long moment, The Prospector turns around and picks up his pace. He feet feel lighter, his eyes are wide. He strides back through the woods with a purpose, his breath the only sound in a silent world.
He should have come to the town by now. The path suddenly seems unfamiliar. The Prospector turns and breaks into a drunken run, until a patch of ice sends him sprawling to the ground.
The world is spinning. He decides to wait for the ground to stop moving. The cold hits him hard. Thinking his eyes are going to freeze, he shuts them. His breath starts to slow. Before long, the forest becomes tranquil again and a fresh dusting of snow begins to fall.
The way back home is hard to find, when you’re love drunk and moonshine blind.