Billie Eilish has never bought a CD. The 17-year-old platinum-selling musician revealed this about herself in an early 2019 interview with NME to much online disbelief—presumably from people older than her, who couldn’t fathom a music fandom scenario without physical media.
This bit of modern music trivia sparked disbelief from 23-year-old Braeden Lemasters and 22-year-old Cole Preston, both of Los Angeles pop rock band Wallows, which also features 22-year-old Dylan Minnette. They have been playing music together since their early teens, and their debut album Nothing Happens was released earlier this year on Atlantic Records. You can buy a copy of it if you’re old. You can stream it if you’re young. You can stumble onto it accidentally if it exists anywhere in the same orbit as something else you consumed online.
Lemasters called Spotify’s algorithmic recommendations “a wormhole.” Preston, seated among boxes of CDs he’d packed up during a move, called streaming music a “schizophrenic” endeavor, touting its convenience, knocking its low artist pay and launching into a sharp critique of the medium affecting the message.
“For us, it was like, ‘Oh, you need to write your name on your album cover, and it should be at least this big, otherwise people won’t be able to read it on their phone,’” Preston said. “The packaging, the whole tangible element of it is totally lost. Big art in general is considered to be sort of highbrow. I think the big art involved with music is just kind of gone away because of how tiny our devices are.”
Lemasters chimed in, stifling a laugh. “I heard the Mona Lisa is considered lowbrow. Because it’s so small.”
Art historians estimate it took Da Vinci at least four years to paint his biggest work of art, which is in reality very small. Wallows has been even more patient. Though the members are young, the band itself is not: Minnette and Lemasters became friends at nine and have been writing songs together since they were 11. They met Preston shortly afterward and went through a handful of iterations and regrettable band names before the official “debut” of Wallows in 2017.
Wallows released a few singles that year, an EP in 2018, and then Nothing Happens, a John Congleton-produced full-length record chock full of beachy, Strokes-inspired pop rock tracks. After a lot of waiting, things are finally happening for Wallows. So why call the record Nothing Happens? And why are things finally happening now?
“When we were kids and really trying to do it, we would always be like, ‘Man, nothing’s happening. Nothing happens for us ever no matter how much we work,’” Preston said. “When we were probably 15, we joked that whenever our first album gets created—whatever happens, however it happens, it’s going to be called Nothing Happens. When we had the lyrics and had the whole theme of the record, I think that the title just made sense in a totally different way. You can go through all these things in your youth that feel so heavy and serious and like the end of the world and all that. But at the end of the day, once you power through it all, it sort of feels like nothing really happened.”
When it seemed like nothing was happening for Wallows, plenty was happening professionally for Lemasters and Minnette, who have both been actors since they were very young. This other career at least partially answers the question of “Why now?” for Wallows. The band’s major-label debut comes in the wake of Minnette’s lead role as Clay Jensen in the controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. And though Minnette’s newfound notoriety is inextricable from the sudden escalation of Wallows’ profile, it is certainly not its only cause.
“Dylan and I … wanted to be actors when we were very, very, very young, but I think it was always in our DNA to be musicians, that was what our main thing would be when we got older,” Lemasters said. “It’s not like we’re actors [who said] ‘Hey, let’s capitalize and be musicians because I can play a G chord!’ We’re actually passionate. I spend my free time trying to perfect this, and I’m constantly listening to music and trying to broaden my stuff.”
Nothing Happens melds a variety of influences, including apparent heavy inspiration from the early-2000s garage rock revival. The songs are as guitar-driven as they are synth pop, and the lyrics exhibit both youthful hubris and earned enlightenment.
“I say the wrong shit at the right times,” Minnette sings in the earworm single “Scrawny.” He goes on, “I can still have wisdom and look like a child.”
Wallows is a study in diametrics: throwback rock ‘n’ roll and laptop pop, showbiz veterans and industry newcomers, the kind of dudes who stream every day but would love it if you bought the largest of all the media they offer: a vinyl LP. They’re awash with obsessive fans on their social accounts yet seem to be living, all things considered, pretty normal lives.
“When we get old, will we regret this?” Minnette croaks on another Wallows single, “Are You Bored Yet?” “Too young to think about all that shit / And stalling only goes so far when you’ve got a head start.”
Now, finally, Wallows has gotten its decade-in-the-making head start and is finding out what happens when Nothing Happens finally happens.
Hi! I’ve started a regular feature at I Ate Oklahoma on one of my culinary true loves, noodles. “Noodling” will be a monthly review on—hold onto your hat—noodles consumed at any one of Oklahoma’s finest and/or worst noodle-serving establishments.
Jay Farrar, songwriter and singer for Son Volt, laments the state of things in no uncertain terms on the band’s new record, “Union,” released in March of this year.
“Lady Liberty, are you still here?” he sings in his trademark melancholy voice in the midst of 13 songs tackling prominent headlines from the last few years, the immigrant experience and the fate of whistleblower Reality Winner, among other things.
Farrar formed Son Volt in 1994 after leaving Uncle Tupelo, the band he co-wrote for with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Son Volt has undergone several lineup changes and done some stylistic experimentation since, including the blues-focused “Notes of Blue” record in 2017.
For “Union,” Farrar largely focused his songwriting in the traditions of protest folk songs, with calls for justice and character narratives inspired by tracks like Guthrie’s “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” and Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.” Son Volt recorded a portion of the record at the Mother Jones Museum in Mount Olive, Illinois, and several songs at Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center to draw inspiration from the museums’ namesakes.
Son Volt returns to Oklahoma for a Tuesday show at the Jones Assembly. Here he comments in a recent interview for The Oklahoman:
Q:As a non-Oklahoman, when did your relationship with Woody Guthrie start?
Farrar: The relationship with Woody Guthrie probably started when I found Woody Guthrie records in my folks’ record collection. Eventually I started buying his records and seeing the connection and the inspiration he gave to Bob Dylan and that sort of continuum. Woody was a spokesman for the underprivileged, and he kind of represented the idea that there’s more to life than just making a buck.
Q:Why was it important to you to record at the Woody Guthrie Center, in close proximity to his material?
Farrar: Part of it was a field trip just to get out of the studio, and the other purpose was to kind of highlight people that have made a difference — Woody Guthrie is one, and Mother Jones is the other. I felt like it would be a good challenge to get out of the recording studio to a different environment and maybe be inspired along the way.
Q:The Woody Guthrie Center is located on a street that was named after a member of the KKK, in a district of Tulsa that was formerly named after him. There are a lot of juxtapositions like that in this part of the country. How do you think being from the Midwest and South has affected your relationship to a folk music, and to politics by extension?
Farrar: I didn’t know that. Being in the middle of the country does inform the way you think about things and your sensibility. When you have members of your own family and friends that you know think differently than you, you have to kind of walk a fine line. That’s more or less the approach I tried to take with “Union”— putting some ideas out there for discussion really is what it’s all about. A lot of it was coming straight from headlines: “The 99” is kind of a composite sketch of the Dakota Pipeline protest and the Ferguson protest and the Occupy protest, going back a few years. “Union” is just kind of acknowledging the cultural divide that’s going on. That’s something you run into every day being in the middle of the country.
Q:You’ve said that it felt like a responsibility to address these topics in your songs. Is that the responsibility of a songwriter or just the responsibility as a human being?
Farrar: To me, they’re one and the same. Protest music seems to me to be a longstanding tradition that I was exposed to early on. It was much more pervasive going back to when I first started listening to music in the ‘70s, music that had come from the ′60s, the Vietnam War era. It was just much more commonplace then and through the ′80s and ′90s with punk rock. Protest music seems to be disappearing in some ways. It’s not as prevalent as it used to be.
Q:Do you have any sort of apprehension or concern about the shelf life of a record that is dealing with current events?
Farrar: I do and I don’t, you know. I don’t know if my songs will have a shelf life, but I’m certainly glad that people like Neil Young decided to do what they did, write a song like “Ohio.” To me that’s a timeless song, but during the writing of the songs for “Union,” there was a midpoint where I at least thought of that and tried to present two sides to the record. There are a few songs that are non-topical, where I was trying to kind of be inspired by a more regular rock ethos.
Q:With your song “The Symbol” (about a Mexican immigrant) as a parallel for Woody Guthrie’s “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” it seems like these sentiments are more timeless than I think we want them to be.(Story continued below…)
Farrar: That’s right. Unfortunately it’s almost like a certain theme that can just be updated every generation.
Q:When you’re writing, do you just write songs, or do you know that you’re writing a record — a collection of songs?
Farrar: It’s usually about three songs in probably. You get a sense that this is where the songs want to go either thematically or perhaps sonically.
Q:One of the hallmarks of your songwriting and producing is establishing guideposts for yourself like alternate guitar tunings or switching musical equipment, or even just deciding that you need to write so many rock songs on a protest record. What are some of the other parameters you set for “Union”?
Farrar: On “Notes of Blue,” I had concentrated more on using alternate tunings. That was also more of a skeleton crew of myself and Jacob Edwards and Mark Spencer playing a bunch of instruments. This time we had a band chemistry. We’ve played a lot of shows together on the road, and that’s reflected on this record. The guitar solos were handled by Chris Frame; I sort of stepped back and let him do that so there was a new flavor, a new perspective that was different from “Notes of Blue.” We talked about getting out to different recording environments where you really don’t know what’s going to happen. Just the idea of being challenged sort of makes things fresh in a way.
Q:If the songwriting is your half of a collective social responsibility, that implies there’s a hoped-for or expected response. You put this record out into the world. Now what do you want people to take from it?
Farrar: I sort of feel like I’m just asking questions, you know. I don’t have the answers, but I hope that these songs add to the discussion.
Pressed about the ardent devotion of Hanson’s fan base—many of whom celebrate and follow the band with the same fervor as they did when “MMMBop” dominated airwaves in 1997—Taylor Hanson offers an explanation as simple as it is true: “It’s hard-fought,” he said. “We just keep putting in the time.”
It’s been 22 years since “MMMBop” and 27 since the brotherly trio’s first-ever performance at Tulsa Mayfest, when its eldest member (Isaac) was 12 years old. The true believers who have followed the band since those early days will have much to celebrate this month, starting May 16 with the start of the annual “Hanson Day” gathering celebrating the band’s formation. Thousands of Hanson fans from around the world will descend on Tulsa for the three-day event, with a stacked itinerary including a dance party, a painting class, karaoke, and a Saturday night concert at Cain’s Ballroom available only to Hanson fan club members.
Following Hanson Day, The Hop Jam—the band’s annual beer and music festival—takes place May 19 in the Tulsa Arts District. The fest includes another Hanson concert performance, as well as sets from the newly reunited Phantom Planet and Joshua & the Holy Rollers, fronted by the youngest Hanson brother, Mac (not a member of Hanson, the band, proper).
The weekend also marks the band’s first Oklahoma show on their String Theory tour, an international slew of dates pairing Hanson with orchestras across the globe for a two-act performance. Hanson partnered with renowned composer David Campbell (Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Taylor Swift) for the orchestral arrangements, and Campbell also led the symphony that performed on the companion album. The sold-out Friday concert with the Tulsa Symphony will feature old and new material from the Hanson catalog to tell the story of the band’s nearly three-decade arc in a way fans have never heard before.
String Theory, a couple of years in the making, launched in the fall of 2018, following the band’s two 2017 releases, a Christmas album and greatest hits compilation Middle of Everywhere, commemorating Hanson’s 25th anniversary. The landmark afforded Hanson a reason not only to embark on an ambitious project like String Theory but also to contemplate the career that led to it.
I spoke with Taylor Hanson about String Theory, the dedication of Hanson fans, and looking back on 27 years as a band.
Becky Carman: When did the idea for String Theory start to take shape, and then how long did it take to actually bring it to life?
Taylor Hanson: We had it on the bucket list of possible ideas, and it actually became a project when we headed toward our 25th anniversary. The original idea was to do 25 cities for 25 years with an orchestra. There was a lot of interest, and it was great to see that, but also we had a long runway to figure it out. We needed to find the right arranger and get plugged in with some of the symphony programs, and that was going to take more time.
While we were working on the groundwork, it really started to become clear what the creative project would be. We recognized that it needed to be new work, a new message. We decided to use the show to tell a story instead of saying, “Let’s pick the most famous songs,” or, “Let’s pick the songs that are most likely to have strings on them in the original recordings.”
We said, “Well no, can we tell a story? Can we take people on kind of a journey with this show?” And that kind of liberated us to think about every song as a possibility, and it also inspired us to write more. We saw the gaps in the narrative we wanted to tell and wrote those new songs.
Carman: How did the partnership with David Campbell happen?
Hanson: He’s an icon, kind of known for working in contemporary rock, pop, R&B, and working with classical. We met him on our first record when he did some arrangements. We kind of did a Hail Mary [when we] reached out to him … He’s working with Paul McCartney and Muse and Pharrell—all kinds of incredible people—but he was excited about it. He understood what we wanted to do, that we didn’t want to just do string pads behind a song, that we wanted to really create something that was exciting to an orchestra. And he signed on.
There were at least 12 months of really active work on the creative but much longer than that working on the vision, the logistics, and the process, understanding how to actually go about implementing it. We wanted the project to be something that, after we’d done the show, we wanted people to say, “This is rewarding and engaging and musically exciting.” That’s what we were hoping, and we could not have done that without David.
Carman: From a songwriting and arranging perspective, what was the most surprising part of turning your older material into something essentially different?
Hanson: The most surprising thing I think is that all of the DNA is in there. You learn that from producing records over time, that a good, core melody is something you can grow from and something you can shrink down to. We definitely had questions about some of the songs that were not especially, immediately identified as poised for classical treatment … Some of the songs that have ended up being really great in the show, like “Where’s the Love?” or even “MMMBop,” which people know as a very straight-up pop song, work really well with the symphony.
Carman: This project is interesting because it’s a challenge to yourselves as artists, but it’s a little bit of a challenge to your fans to ask them to come along with you. How have these audiences been compared to what you guys are used to seeing?
Hanson: One of the things that’s cool … is it sort of gives everybody permission to just be mellow and quiet. We’ve certainly seen some online posts where people came to the show not knowing what they were in store for, and expecting to be jumping up and down and being raucous from the beginning, and this is a show that starts with a ballad. Seventy percent of the show is new songs or deep cuts—with an orchestra.
We’ve heard some great feedback, which I think says that it’s resonated. There is a deeper message through this sort of project that really speaks to who we are and what we’re about, why we do what we do. It’s really a show about perseverance, about surviving through challenges and seeing the bigger picture. Most concerts, you do that in maybe one or two songs, but in this particular show, it’s one building arc. That’s something I’m really proud of, and I feel like a lot of the audience has joined us in that.
Carman: What imprint has String Theory left on you as a songwriter or a live performer?
Hanson: It has forced us to take on the new. Even though we’ve done many tours, and every tour is different, this is different on a whole other level. When we walked into those first few shows, we had genuine nerves about it because you’re working with the best players in a completely different discipline, performing to a chart that’s not going to change. If you step left, they’re not going to step left with you; you have to hit your mark. It made us really have to pay attention and not give ourselves any passes. As a result, I feel like we’re tighter and hopefully sharper than we’ve been.
Carman: The past few years, you’ve taken some time to look back. Are there any reflections about your career so far that maybe felt like new information to you?
Hanson: We try to not spend too much time looking back. You’re always struggling to add new things to the story, a new song, a new tour. Partly, it’s been enjoyable just to have permission to reflect … because you’re consciously saying hey, we’ve reached a benchmark, and this is a great time to recognize that history. We’ve gotten past a bunch of things that might have killed us, but we’re still here. I think that gives a little boost of confidence, and for the fanbase that has stuck with us, I hope for them it’s an affirmation that they backed a group that has been in it for the long haul, and it has been worth it.
Concert Review: Ariana Grande tells fans what they want, delivers in OKC for The Oklahoman
Ariana Grande’s Thursday night OKC “Sweetener World Tour” stop opened like her 2018 album “Sweetener,” with a stunning display of the 25-year-old singer’s a cappella vocal prowess by way of “raindrops (an angel cried),” an abbreviated cover of the Four Seasons’ heartbreaker “An Angel Cried.”
Grande’s expansive voice filled the arena as she rose from below the stage floor in a “Last Supper”-esque dining table vignette, so entangled in her crew of dancers you could hardly see her, though she was all you could hear—a pattern that repeated itself throughout the night.
Her aesthetic is so thoroughly crafted and so completely realized that, on stage, she’s become part of it rather than it being part of her. The stark pastel palette of her last two records, her thigh-high boots, faux ponytail and her close-knit cronies are so ingrained with Ariana Grande the brand that the seamlessness of it all makes her pint-sized frame as invisible as she is larger than life.
None of this is a criticism. Grande is singular among her pop contemporaries on sheer vocal talent alone, but her prolificacy—February’s “thank u, next” full-length was released only six months after “Sweetener”—strikes another chord altogether. Thursday’s 90-minute set felt lightning-quick, every addition a crowd favorite or hit single, and it managed to contain mostly songs released within the last calendar year.
She spoke very little through the five-act concert, barring the occasional standard, “Oklahoma City, how you feelin’?” and another of her Grande-brand signature moves: She says, “I love you.” A lot. Not just at her shows, but on Twitter to nobody in particular, on Twitter to individual fans, and always, always lowercase.
That love is a two-way street between Grande and her most devoted Arianators, an estimated 18,000 of whom filled the ‘Peake (including a few perplexed significant others, doting parents and tired children). They’re a group with whom she appears to have made an implicit agreement to share not just her songs, but within them her happiness (the jaunty “successful,” sung solo and center stage), anxieties (“breathin’,” the night’s most spot-on and impressive vocal performance) and grief (“fake smile,” sung completely stern-faced, middle fingers up during the chorus), and in return she receives a rather fierce, almost militant dedication.
Despite that love connection, Grande kept a distant, even keel—”F— a fake smile” indeed—and stayed firmly within her character playbook, subtly shape-shifting between minx, as on “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” and broken-hearted, as on “everytime.”
Grande, who got her start on Broadway before graduating to acting on Nickelodeon, is a brilliant technical performer. Thursday’s show was likewise brilliant in concept and material and exceedingly technical in execution. It felt like a departure for a pop star usually so gifted at displaying her humanity, particularly in the face of tragedy, of which she has suffered plenty, including the 2017 suicide bombing after her concert in Manchester and the 2018 overdose death of her friend and former partner Mac Miller.
The knowledge of that fragility and grief, and that’s it’s tackled so literally in many of her lyrics, only served to emphasize that the entire OKC performance felt more rehearsed and Instagram-ready than it did emotive, down to the T-Mobile-sponsored pre-concert signage encouraging cell phone usage.
“Click, click, click and post,” go the lyrics to her single “imagine.” “Drip-drip-dripped in gold.”
Really, that’s not a criticism either. Instead, it is, to quote Grande herself in “make up,” “It’s a mood, it’s a vibe, it’s a look.”
Grande is managing the weight of her persona with a clear-headed artistry, participating in her own machine without descending into blandness, repetition or self-parody. Her “Sweetener” tour is actually remarkable in its control and precision. She essentially told her fans what they wanted, then delivered it to the letter.
To quote that other famous lowercase poet, E.E. Cummings (stylized as e.e. cummings, like all these song titles): “see i will comfort you / because you smell so sweetly / put up your little arms / and i’ll give them all to you to hold.”
During the making of “thank u, next,” the album, Grande famously took six of her girlfriends to Tiffany & Co. and, riding a champagne high, bought seven matching rings. The trip inspired the deliciously vapid “7 rings,” during which Grande preened with her girl crew, singing, “Happiness is the same price as red-bottoms,” a nod to shoe designer Christian Louboutin’s trademark.
That Cummings poem continues, “every finger shall have its ring / and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy.”
Grande encored with the title track from “thank u, next,” a peppy breakup anthem synopsizing a handful of relationships and distilling the lessons into a tidy package. It is, like the entire concert and like Grande’s career arc as of late, bursting with the sum of its parts and perfectly calculated fun—an uncomplicated tribute from Ari to her own mood, vibe, look, happiness. Lowercase in its emphasis but impactful nonetheless, drip-drip-dripped in gold.
Don’t dream it’s over: M. Lockwood Porter sees a better world coming for The Tulsa Voice
In his music video for “The Dream Is Dead,” Tulsa songwriter M. Lockwood Porter is at the tail end of the fifth stage of grief—acceptance.“The dream is dead, and everybody knows it,” goes the refrain, as an energized Porter, awakened by a glimmer of hope buried deep in a barrage of bad news, hangs fliers across Tulsa in hopes of inspiring human connection.
“There’s a better world coming,” taped to the glass of a hollowed-out community center.
“I will do no more hoping.”
“I will get out on the street.”
The single, from Porter’s new album Communion in the Ashes, makes a salient point about our collective sense of doom, whether about politics or about society as a whole. He’s right: The dream is dead. Everybody does know it. So now what?
Porter’s complicated relationship with “the dream,” in the sense of the classic American dream, started early, in his hometown.
“Growing up in Skiatook, I didn’t think, ‘I live in this town where there are less opportunities for people.’ I thought everyone was the same. In a lot of ways, I based my conception of myself around the American dream … that I could be this self-made person,” Porter said. “That really got challenged for me over the last decade in a lot of ways. Going to Yale gave me a sense of it because I thought I was coming in on equal footing, but a lot of those kids went to board schools, prep schools … they know things I don’t know, and I may never understand the world the way they do. There’s a barrier to entry.”
He graduated in 2009, shortly after the Great Recession, and moved to the Bay Area of California as he and his friends struggled to make sense of their new economic reality. While there, he taught for four years in a low-income public school, illuminating the dearth of opportunity for people who grow up in poverty.
“Seeing how much of a struggle it was for everyone with basic things like health insurance made me question that fundamental optimism I’d had,” Porter said.
He mourned that loss on 2016’s How to Dream Again. “Anyone can make it in the USA / All you have to do is struggle and pray,” he laments on “The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be.” Throughout that album, Porter not only laments the loss of his American dream but also recontextualizes for himself what it means to be a songwriter on the other side of that.
“Am I a coward to keep singing songs of sadness and love / With so much blood in the streets, so many bombs up above,” he sings on “Sad/Satisfied.”
“I started trying to fuse songwriting, art, the sociopolitical interests I have,” Porter said. “It stopped being interesting to me to record country songs about being sad.”
Before leaving California for Tulsa, he wrote the songs for Communion in the Ashes, his political tendencies heightened in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.
“I spent a year, like a lot of people probably, depressed, afraid, trying to figure out. I’d just made a record about the political situation in our country, and then things got even worse,” Porter said. “I didn’t want to make the same record again. Out of that, I tried to find a more positive take.”
He recorded the album with a handful of longtime collaborators including engineer and drummer Peter Labberton, guitarist Jeremy Lyon, bassist Bevan Herbekian, keyboard player Jeff Hashfield, and vocalist Tracey Holland. Much of it was recorded in live band takes with few rehearsals, and that confidence and energy contribute to the calls to action in the lyrics.
“I wanted to make a record that communicated optimism. Even though things are so bad, we should try to do something about it,” Porter said. “Where the last record was really about the grief of losing that future I thought I would have, this record is kind of about me trying to find some belief system to replace that.”
“I will do no more hoping,” says the flier tucked under a windshield in downtown Tulsa. “I will dig the dirt myself.”
Protest records are nothing new, but Porter’s position is more that of a fatalistic pragmatist. It’s a uniquely modern perspective that could capture the heart of discerning nihilists everywhere.
“If I’m being 100 percent rational, the outlook is pretty bleak, but I’m choosing to have faith that we can do something,” Porter said. “That attitude guides my thinking about the world we’re currently living in, my political outlook. We have no choice. In my small way as a musician or just as a member of society, with whatever little microphone I have, I feel like it’s important for me to normalize the idea that we can do big things.”
“Our redemption song can topple walls, but first we must compose it,” Porter sings, before nearly all the sound drops out from behind him, save for one brave, lone guitar. “The dream is dead, and everybody knows it.”
Lone Star State of Mind: Songwriter Robert Ellis stakes out his corner of Texas’ music legacy for The Oklahoman / NewsOK
For his new album “Texas Piano Man,” songwriter Robert Ellis dons a white tuxedo and an uncharacteristically Texas-sized pop swagger.
Ellis, known for his intricate guitar playing and what he accurately described as “not lowest-common-denominator” songwriting, put down the six-string and instead picked up 88 keys for writing and tracking his latest effort. But he didn’t just make a piano record: Robert Ellis transformed into the Texas Piano Man, with yellow lapel rose and pristine white cowboy hat to boot.
Or boots, in this case.
“Texas Piano Man” is a poppy, wry masterpiece channeling Elton John, Harry Nilsson and whoever the first guy is to start playing piano uninvited at a house party. The bluntly funny singles “F***ing Crazy” and “Nobody Smokes Anymore”—”Guess I’ll be the only one who looks good in pictures,” Ellis deadpans — give way to the heartrending “Aren’t We Supposed to Be in Love?” while the album closer is an unsubtle ode to everyone’s favorite Mexican mineral water, “Topo Chico.”
If that all sounds weird, that’s because it is. While such a statement album might have given Ellis pause, the Texas Piano Man dives in tails first, to entertaining effect. He’ll kick off his “Texas Piano Man” tour with a Saturday performance at VZD’s, along with Ian O’Neil of Deer Tick. Black tie optional.
Q: At what point in the songwriting for “Texas Piano Man” did you decide you weren’t going to pick up a guitar?
Ellis: The first song I wrote for the new record was probably “Passive Aggressive.” Right around the time that I started working on the nuts and bolts of figuring that song out, it was like, ‘This needs to be a piano record.’ That song gave me a lot of cues as to the disposition and humor…like the whole record needs to have some levity to it, and it can be a little more fun. If you have a song like that, and then you have nine other really serious ones, it just doesn’t, like, prime you for the punchline.
Q: It’s interesting you’d say that, because I think on your last two records, you just had a couple moments of lightness in the midst of really sad songs.
Ellis: You’re right. It’s the exact inverse of what I’ve normally done, and I think it’s more effective in some ways. It’s a little easier to get somebody to hear something serious when they’re smiling than it is to get them to laugh when they’re sad. That’s a taller order, I think.
Q: When did the character of Texas Piano Man start to take shape?
Ellis: I tend to always like grasp at an overall prompt or a concept because it helps me as a writer organize things in a way that makes sense. Whether that’s something as simple as, “I’m going to write this on piano,” or, “This character has a lot of confidence and is maybe a little sarcastic and has a really good sense of humor.” The Texas Piano Man came pretty early on, definitely well before recording.
Q: What is he allowed to do that Robert Ellis isn’t?
Ellis: It’s more fun. I’ve been thinking of it like a live-action role playing. When I put on the tuxedo and go onstage, and even when I write, I have this sense of like refinement and ease. In my mind, this character is extremely confident and doesn’t need validation to find his power, if that makes sense. He’s really sure of what he’;s doing and feels like if you don’t like this, then you’re wrong. I’ve never really had that feeling. I feel like a lot of what I’ve had to do has been to convince people to listen hard enough to get what I think is good about my music, which is interesting little stories that if you don’t really pay attention, you’d probably miss altogether. They’re not immediate. My previous songwriting is really just not lowest common denominator stuff, and I feel like there’s a lot with this Texas Piano Man thing where it is. Anybody can enjoy this. I also think there’s depth to it, but you might like it for one reason, and if you show it to your mom, she might like it for a totally different reason.
Q: I won’t call what you’ve done before “precious,” maybe heartfelt and sad, but here, even when your protagonist is kind of a s***head, the song is still pretty happy and fun for the people who are listening to it. I’m guessing that’s more like your real personality.
Ellis: Yeah totally. That’s something I’ve always kind of toyed with, these extreme versions of myself in songs, really making the characters kind of foul and worse than I really see myself, which I guess is some sort of form of therapy, creating these characters that kind of underscore parts of my personality that I really don’t like. You feel a safety in doing it to characters that you don’t feel if you’re just writing confessional, diary music.
In my past material, the protagonist in the songs is often struggling with why he does the things he does, why things have ended up the way they did. This character doesn’t have that same apprehension, and maybe I don’t right now either. I’m definitely sort of hitting a stride, where I’m just like, you know what? This is f***ing great. I just had a kid, and he’s awesome. I get to play music for a living. Things are really good. And maybe I get a little carried away and party a little too much and act a little crazy, but I’m just sick of having guilt about all of that stuff. I want to take ownership of all of it.
Q: Between your last solo record and this one, you’ve done two records with other people: “Dear John” with Courtney Hartman and “Western Movies” as Traveller, your band with Cory Chisel and Jonny Fritz. Did those collaborations influence how you made “Texas Piano Man”?
Ellis: The Courtney record was really interesting because we sat down and recorded that in two days’ time. I had never really done a record like that, and listening back to it, I was like, “Man, this is my favorite thing I’ve ever done.” There’s a level of like anxiety that usually you have when you make a record where you want to smooth out all the rough edges and just make sure everything’s perfect, and with that record, we just did it. I love the way it sounds. And at the core of all of those Traveller songs is a really solid, early, one- or two-take band performance where we all just played and improvised. That informed this most recent record. There’s a guitar, piano, bass, and drums on every song, and I would say 95 percent of that was all done live off the floor. We really just made performances kind of be at the heart of this.
Q: Texas country is kind of its own subgenre, and there are radio charts specific to Texas. Texas music in general seems like its own separate animal. What is Texan about the Texas Piano Man, and what do people expect from you, being from there?
Ellis: I think people get a little confused when they think of what it is to be Texan, because it’s a really big place, and it has personalities that are just as big. Maybe Willie Nelson is like pinnacle, sort of cliche Texan, but also Texas country is this thing that can sound like Willie Nelson, or it can sound like Dave Matthews Band. At some point I realized like the only thing that these things have in common is that somebody who is from Texas took ownership of what they were doing and started saying, “I’m from Texas, so this is Texas music.”
Anything that I do is Texas music, because I am from here. I’ve been here my whole life. I used to have some worry about fitting into that mold, and to be quite frank, a lot of those people that you’re talking about, they don’t f***ing give me the time of day. I’m not on the Texas music radio charts. They think of what I do as Americana or something outside. I guess I’m just feeling like it’s time to kick that door down because it’s not fair. They don’t get to claim ownership of the state any more than Kinky Friedman does. Any weirdo who just says, “I’m from Texas,” eventually becomes part of the ethos and part of what it is to be a Texan, and then after the fact, we take it for granted.
It’s like a naturalist’s argument. It kind of bums me out sometimes when people say that something is unnatural. How can anything be unnatural? How can machines be unnatural?
Q: That’s kind of a heavy question.
Ellis: It is, and I guess in my in my humble approximation, anything that anyone does is an extension of existence. In terms of the larger spiritual discussion, how can anything be anything other than natural? How is Home Depot somehow less natural than the rainforest? It’s all an extension of whatever this weird thing we call existence is. So I guess to draw a parallel, I don’t see how if I’m from Texas and I make music, it’s not Texas music, so leave me alone. [laughing]
Legendary crooner Johnny Mathis was born to sing for The Oklahoman / NewsOK
Even via phone from his home in Beverly Hills, the showstopping smile that made crooner Johnny Mathis a heartthrob among heartthrobs early in his career comes through, loud and clear. In his pitch-perfect enunciation, he introduces himself as John, not Johnny — he is 82 now, after all.
On this particular morning, when asked how he’s doing, he responded, without missing a beat: “Oh, I’m old!” followed by a raucous belly laugh.
“I wondered when I was a little kid about when people got old, I wondered what they did, and now I’m finding out,” Mathis said. “Not much. You try to make your day nice and easy, and that’s about it.”
That may be true of most people his age, but here, it’s a stretch. A recent Washington Post article revealed Mathis, a former champion high-jumper, gets up at 5:30 a.m. to work out with a personal trainer whenever he’s at home.
He’s about to embark on a series of tour dates marking his 62nd year in the music business, during which time he’s recorded 79 albums, including last year’s “Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook.” It’s a rare feat for an active entertainer’s career to reach its sixth decade, and Mathis has spent most of it on Columbia Records as the label’s most tenured artist. His 1958 record “Johnny’s Greatest Hits” pioneered the greatest hits format. He’s netted five Grammy nominations and three Grammy Hall of Fame inductions.
These are formidable laurels, yet Mathis isn’t resting on them. He is, as he put it, “born to sing,” and the rest? All in a life’s work.
“Great New American Songbook,” helmed by Clive Davis and produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, typifies Mathis’ gentlemanly, even passive, approach to making records, as well as the tremendous trust he puts in his collaborators to guide his choices.
“I grew up having to record songs that were popular of the day. That was a very big part of my life as a young performer,” Mathis said. “People are always playing songs for me. I have no idea what would sell, and people will only buy what they want to hear, so I might as well try to sing that.”
“Songbook” includes tracks made famous by everyone from Whitney Houston and Adele to Pharrell, Bruno Mars and even Keith Urban, all delivered in Mathis’ polite, laser-focused tenor. As far as how to approach performing newer pop songs in his traditional style, Mathis says there isn’t much to it.
“You don’t really have to worry about it, because you open your mouth, you sing the same song the same way somebody else did it, and it just sounds like you. You can’t help it,” Mathis said. “The fun part is when you sing one that has been done well by someone else, and yours comes out good, too.”
He credits Edmonds with keeping him on track in the studio, because, despite that “here goes nothing” approach, even Johnny Mathis has his doubts.
“Whenever I would ask, ‘Really? You want me to sing that?’ he said, ‘Come on, give it a chance.’ I need people around me like that because my head is all over the place as far as music is concerned,” Mathis said. “Recording is, I’m telling you, it’s a puzzle, because you think you’re doing it and it sounds OK, and then six months later, you listen to it and say, ‘Oh, why did I do that way?’ But that’s just de rigueur, I guess, for most people.”
He noted that, because he’s gone from, “I sound like a girl, oh no!” to “That’s my favorite song!” about the same recording over time, he is not dogmatic about turning down suggestions. The record company wants him to sing songs people will know. He want to sing songs he thinks people will like. He calls where they land each time “a happy medium.”
Mathis is both pragmatic and deferential, two traits that speak to his longevity. He knows how to keep a label happy and to cater to longtime fans who, let’s face it, are in the room to hear the hits. And they keep showing up, year after year. As jobs go, this is one of the better ones, and Mathis hasn’t lost sight of that.
“I know that I have to repeat a lot of the songs that have been popular over the years like ‘Chances Are,’ ‘Twelfth of Never,’ ‘Misty’ and things like that, but while they’re not watching, I throw in a lot of stuff that I really love,” Mathis said, laughing.
He credits his first voice teacher with teaching him how to preserve the nuances of his voice, particularly in the higher ranges.
“She insisted that I maintain the soft, high notes, so over the years I’ve had a lot of fun singing songs that were a little bit different, and that keeps my interest level up,” Mathis said. “I get the freedom of performing in so many ways, in so many venues, whatever the songs call for.”
His career has been based solely on his uncanny ability to interpret great songs with incredible technical skill and emotion. He is not the sort of famous many of his contemporaries sought to be, calling the prospect of being the topic of conversation “boring” and likening record promotion to “beating the bushes.” Even more unusually, he is not his own producer, songwriter or accompanist. He makes clear the line between what he does, which is sing, versus everything else.
“When I was young, I’d say, ‘Oh I think I should record this, and I think I can hear the accompaniment,’ and a couple of times, without ruining my career, I’ve done that, and it’s a pitfall,” Mathis said. “I was born to just sing. It’s really not a crime to say that I don’t have a handle on (selling records) … and I’m not a good musician; I’m really a singer who is learning to be a better musician.”
People who’ve heard his albums may have their doubts about this particular point of his modesty. Whether he’s feigning a limited understanding of the ins and outs of musicianship or not, he knows what’s good when he hears it. When asked what record he’d listened to most recently, he named Earl Klugh, calling him “par excellence” and “kind of a jazzer, but he plays so beautifully that most people don’t even know.”
Tasked with making plans for his next album, he recently asked longtime accompanist and collaborator Gil Reigers, as if he weren’t Johnny-freaking-Mathis, “Do you think Earl Klugh would make a record with me?”
Reigers contacted Klugh, and he agreed, to Mathis’ apparent surprise.
“I said, ‘Oh wow!’ And so hopefully, my next recording will include at least a couple of songs with the great guitarist Earl Klugh,” Mathis said.
Until then, he has roughly 20 tour dates across the country, spanning through January 2019, during which Mathis, as always, will be doing what he loves, what he knows best, what he was born to do.
“I’m interested in singing a good song and singing it as best I can.”
The more they changed, the less we felt:
The Smashing Pumpkins satisfy longtime fans during the Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour performance for The Oklahoman / NewsOK
Oklahoma City’s July 14 date for the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour” was only the second arena performance on what is slated to be a 40-plus-show run spanning the remainder of the year. It’s something of a reunion, with founding members Billy Corgan, guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin performing onstage together for the first time since 2000. (They’re joined by Jeff Schroeder on guitar, Jack Bates on bass and Katie Cole on keys.)
The impact of this reunion, like pretty much every 20-year reunion in 2018, has sort of been ruined by the internet. First, there’s the conspicuous absence of founding bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, who has participated in some fairly volatile online feuding with Corgan since the reunion was announced. Then, there’s the elephant in the room: Pumpkins fans already know what everyone involved has been doing since we all last saw each other, and one of the things Corgan has been doing, at least since 2005, is touring and making records as the Smashing Pumpkins … mostly sans Chamberlin and definitely without Iha and Wretzky.
Corgan is, by reputation at least, a storied control-freak possessed of an interminable ego. Add to that a tendency toward purposely alienating his collaborators and the fans who’ve tried to stay along for the ride in fretful and surprising ways. So the reunion tour did raise concern, as posed by Joe Coscarelli for The New York Times in March: “The question now is whether fans — who have weathered years of diminishing returns from Mr. Corgan’s mercurial antics, broken promises and odd decisions — will allow themselves to trust the band enough to care.”
I went into Saturday’s show jaw clenched, nervous for the thousands of die-hard Pumpkins fans who filled out Chesapeake Arena’s seats on the promise of Corgan and company’s return to their most-admired form: an evening full of material almost exclusively from the band’s first five albums, performed faithfully by (most of) the musicians on said records.
At promptly 8:15 p.m., following a brief and politely received opening set by Canadian rock band Metric, Corgan took the stage and performed “Disarm,” from 1993’s “Siamese Dream,” alone, his reported 6′ 3” form towering in silver boots and a black jacket emblazoned with a zero on the back, a nod to the “Zero” persona he developed starting with the video for 1995’s “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” Defaced childhood photos of Corgan cycled on-screen behind him, one of the only moments in the show where the video work had any real gravitas. “I used to be a little boy,” Corgan yelped in his trademark nasally tenor, which, at 51 years old, sounds as powerful as ever. “So old in my shoes.”
There was probably not a better way to start the show than with an air of vulnerability, however staged it may have been. Otherwise, Corgan is a rock star through and through, a bizarre and charismatic frontman who strutted and costume-changed his way through 31 songs in a set that lasted just over three hours.
Remember how insane it seemed to put out a two-hour, two-disc alternative rock record in 1995? And how good of an idea we thought “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” was once we’d listened to it? I left the show feeling that same way, that the high points and admiration for the band’s sheer ambition more than made up for any perceivable lows. They continue to gild the lily, in other words, but at their core, they’re exceptional enough to warrant looking past the frills.
Among those high points: early hits like “Today” and “1979,” which brought a wave of well-deserved nostalgia along with hard-hitters like “Zero,” which was preceded by a decidedly creepy video speech from Corgan, during which he pronounced, “Let’s blow on fading embers, to boast about things … forgotten and buried. ‘Tis the end, ‘tis the end, ‘tis the end.” “Mayonaise” [sic] from “Siamese Dream” into “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” (from “Mellon Collie”) was another strong pairing, both songs kicking off with jangly, quiet guitar work leading into the meaty ‘90s alt-rock the band helped define.
And among the lows: the muddled concept of the video screen content, some of which was beautiful, some of which was generic and some of which was, for some reason, Sugar Ray singer Mark McGrath in a vaudeville costume blathering on so the band could take short breaks.
Also, Corgan’s voice is so recognizable that cover songs just come off kind of weird. Their take on Bowie’s “Space Oddity” came closest to feeling OK in context, but a stunted performance of “Landslide” and a hilariously overwrought “Stairway to Heaven” were only saved by being the bread on a “Tonight, Tonight” sandwich, a song so well-written and well-produced that it sounds timeless and that they performed without fault.
For the first time in a very long time, the Smashing Pumpkins delivered on exactly what their fans wanted and then some, which is a bit of a miracle, even if it was by design.
“We collectively need to rebuild the public trust in our brand,” Corgan said in the aforementioned NYT piece, before going on to admit, “We’re going to say, ‘Look, yes, we’re brats. Yes, we’ve tested your patience. But this is our absolute best effort.’ ”
Maybe, in the life span of an artist’s career, no apologies ever need be made, but for perhaps in the first time in the history of the Smashing Pumpkins, concessions are being made, at least. Corgan, despite all his rage, seems at peace with the legacy he’s masterminded. He spoke very little throughout the show until the end, when he introduced his bandmates, calling out Iha and Chamberlin in particular for spending so much time with “a freak” like himself. He commented on how remarkable it is for a band to have a 30-year history and thanked the crowd for making it possible.
They finished their set with “Muzzle,” during which Corgan sang, particularly meaningfully in light of the captive audience, “My life has been extraordinary,” before returning for an encore led off by “Solara,” a new Rick Rubin-produced single that sounds as at-home during their greatest hits show as it would on any featured album. Maybe, as his visage commanded earlier, “Tis the end,” but maybe that end also is a beginning.
This machine writes poetry for The Oklahoman / NewsOK
“Good people, what are we waiting on?”
The refrain of Woody Guthrie’s folk battle cry, “What Are We Waiting On,” is at the heart of the all-original work written by the Woody Guthrie Poetry Group, or the Woody Poets, now in its 13th year. The group has done readings since 2005 in conjunction with Okemah’s Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, which starts July 11.
Oklahoma poet and editor Dorothy Alexander, a founding member of the Woody Poets and a coordinator and anthology editor for the group, elaborated on how the theme resonates with her.
“When are we going to change things? [Woody was] about change. Let’s move on. Let’s get beyond ourselves, let’s get beyond whatever muck we’re in at this point,” Alexander said. “Sometimes people have to be jogged, and I think art is perhaps as much as anything, maybe as much as politics, spurs people to change. It’s a way of expressing a need for change, and Woody was all about that.”
The WoodyFest poetry readings started when George Wallace, noted poet and former writer-in-residence of the Walt Whitman Birthplace, attended the festival in 2004 at the behest of his friend, songwriter David Amram. Wallace questioned the festival’s lack of a poetry contingent, given Guthrie’s history as a poet. He contacted 1995 Oklahoma Poet Laureate Carol Hamilton, who was then joined by Jim Spurr, Nathan Brown and Alexander as the first group of presenting poets. Wallace also approached the festival committee to secure a spot on the 2005 WoodyFest program for the poets, a feature that’s continued every year since.
Alexander, who grew up in Roger Mills County during the Dust Bowl, is an apt choice to help carry on Guthrie’s poetic legacy. During her childhood in the Dust Bowl years, she and her family attended country dances, social gatherings organized by the community for families with little to no money. Guthrie, who at the time lived in nearby Pampa, Texas, often performed music for these dances. She recalls her mother later hearing Guthrie on the radio in the early 1940s, when Guthrie had moved on to California, and asking her father, “Isn’t Woody Guthrie that boy who used to come and play for the dances?”
While Guthrie’s been in Alexander’s orbit for nearly her entire life, she credits his recent resurgence as an Oklahoma icon to the George Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2011 purchase and eventual relocation of Guthrie’s archives to Tulsa from New York.
“The tremendous price paid for them gives him legitimacy, if that’s the right word,” Alexander said, though she notes his legacy has been celebrated outside of Oklahoma for some time, even inspiring the work of Bob Dylan. “He has been so admired in many places. Oklahoma can be a little slow to recognize their own.”
At home and abroad, admiration for Guthrie’s work has certainly surged in recent years.
“He was the voice of our conscience. He was a socialist, and he always, always allied himself with working class,” Alexander said. “He had his little sticker attached to his guitar that said, ‘This machine kills fascists.’ He’s always been the voice of the working man, the working poor.”
Through his writing, Guthrie still manages to project that voice, and the growing interest in the poetry at WoodyFest is just more and more people chiming in to his chorus.
“Poetry has always been a way of protest and resistance,” Alexander said. “Last year, we had the largest crowds we’ve ever had in all of our readings. I think that’s why we saw so many people from so far away and all through all strata of society submitting poems last year, wanting to have a voice, for someone to hear their voice. That’s what ‘What Are We Waiting On’ means. … Let’s say it now. Let’s say it over and over, say it louder this time, let’s say it stronger, let’s say it better. And that to me is what art is about, not just poetry.”
The Woody Poets have four readings scheduled during WoodyFest, with a full schedule of participating poets and accompanists available at www.woodyfest.com/poetry. The group also publishes anthologies in odd years, available for sale via Village Books Press and at the scheduled readings.
DUST BOWL MIGRANTS
It was hard to go, but harder to stay,
to endure the wind, to wake each morning
in drought, swirling in a pool of poverty
like a June bug in a cup of milk.
The ones who went suffered broken hearts.
I’m coming back someday, they wrote,
but most never did,
the old life too small to fit anymore.
They’re still out there in Bakersfield,
Phoenix, Tempe. They shuffle along the streets
in packs, watch for senior discounts
and cars with Oklahoma license plates.
But, they stay as far away as they can
from the drought-bitten prairie
with its dusty winds of longing.
And cling to a more certain life.
Thing is, they can’t forget.
Gone for decades, they still call
Oklahoma “back home.”
When I go to visit, they talk and talk
about how it was, and ask: Is it still that way?
I always lie and say, Well, it hasn’t changed much.
What I don’t say is, It never was the way
you remember it.
— By Dorothy Alexander, born in 1934, who still remembers the Dust Bowl & The Great Depression