I often say that poetry is not dead, it is all around us but we just call it lyrics now. That applies in spades to Black Wings, the new album released this week by essence, the San Francisco-based Americana/folk/blues/rock/pop singer who goes only by her first (and given) name. Back Wings is a deeply poetic and musically addictive quarrying of the dissolution of essence’s decade-long marriage. Listening to it is like orbiting the dark side of the moon: you are blissfully lost in the eternity of the universe, but you are tethered to the shadows of the reality below. Either way, the experience is mystical and forever memorable. It is no wonder that essence won the grand prize in the Lilith Talent Search and came in second, ahead of 20,000 other entrants, in the International Songwriting Contest.
Black Wings is a dozen songs that excavate the intimate agonies and lingering fossils of essence’s divorce. The songs are not in chronological order – they don’t proceed from discovering her man’s unfaithfulness and the stages of pain to its finality. Rather it mines her heart, following first this vein of pain and then that of determination and then the another of shock. It is not a story as much as it is an epic poem told in folk, blues, rock and an echoing voice that ranges from belt to melancholy.
It is this quality of Black Wings that makes it so powerful – the music separates us from the cold logic of a narrative so we can live the journey of a devastated, but resilient woman. “There goes the last piece of my heart” she sings in the first song, “1000 Pieces” warning us as we start this journey, “don’t ask me how/it’s all gonna end/the only thing/I’ve ever been sure of/ is closure’s just/another Hollywood trend”.
The title song, “Black Wings” opens the gateway to her – and many others’ – downfall: “I’m falling down hard for you…you are fucked up enough for me”, letting us know that she, like so many other women, are attracted to men who “are like cactus” but fulfill a need. She repeats the plea in “Camels and Diesel”, pleading “I’ll walk across the coals to you/but you won’t do the same/give me some fire”.
She delivers these pieces of her heart in a feast of musical styles. “1000 Pieces” is perfectly pitched folk pop carried with a brush drum beat, laced with organ flourishes and colored with echo. “Black Wings’ injects its emotional payload with a simple high-end plucked string that frames her voice like Carolyn Cardoza’s electrified ukulele does with the vocals of jazz singer Irene Diaz. Clean and powerful.
Then essence dives into deep blues-rock with “Camels and Diesel” led by a metal body resonator guitar, howling electrics and full drums pounding out a heartbeat, all scaffolding her urgent voice.
Later in “Fossils”, partially written with her four-year-old son, the big rhythm guitar comes out to drive home determination as essence proclaims she will love her husband “when you’re dust/ and when your fossils turn to gasoline…but I will love you most when that car runs out of gasoline”, a point she emphasized earlier in “Camels and Diesel”: “I think it’s time/you done give/back what you/stole” .
For me, the musical high point of the album is “Headed North”, her escape maybe into heaven, maybe into hell, but it is what women all over the world do when the relationship they are in becomes unbearable. This is blues rock of the highest order; “Headed North” pierces you with urgent, desperate guitar riffs as essence’s voice soars and she cries, “heading north/don’t try to find me…sky hangs low overland/ smoking like a gun”. You pound your knee, snap your fingers and understand.
But as powerful as “Heading North” is musically and emotionally, it is “Over My Head” that stops you in its tracks and makes you hit “repeat”. Bracketed almost whimsically with rhythm guitar and light, sophisticated percussion, essence sings from inside the hallway of her memory of the time she encountered the woman that caused her the pain. “I walk the same steps as you/faded velvet corridor/I steal the smile from her face/the one meant for you….I don’t want to know/what happens next…who’s been lying in my bed”.
As you absorb that, essence takes you back to her childhood in “Roots”, a history with divorced flower child parents who moved her so much she was in 14 schools by the 4th grade. But somewhere in that childhood, she got the advice of her life and she tells us in the hard blues rock song “She Said” that spools out the words of a wise old woman and why she is strong enough to leave when she has to.
The album closes with the down and dirty piano-pounding folk blues rock “So Much Hell” which could be pulled from today’s headlines. “So much hell/in the world… now all I want is/one decent heart/to lie beside/while I fall/apart”. Don’t we all.
Back Wings is essence’s fifth album, including the children’s album A Dog Named Moo and His Friend Poo which features the delightful song “Everybody’s Gotta Butt”. Each one mines her heart and quarries the emotional fossils built up since the Summer of Love of her parents' meeting. Becoming a single mother of two, still dealing with her children’s father, and succeeding in a music business so tough that many fail, is a testament to her determination, her resourcefulness and above all, her gift of poetic lyrics and musical skill to convey them, nurtured through darks days and light.
The product of this determination, resourcefulness and gifts is one of the outstanding talents of our time, not just in folk and Americana, not just in rock and blues, not just in pop and children’s songs, but in the words that make us human. That is what Black Wings does: it reminds us why we are human.
I am so excited. The multiple award-winning singer/songwriter essence (yes that is her real name, and yes, it is all lower case) is releasing her new album this Friday as we interview her on Music nFridayLive and play cuts. This will be the first radio play of the songs, so don't miss it. In addition to writing folk/americana, pop, and rock songs, essence also writes songs for kids and families. Her last album, A Dog Named Moo, was funded by fans on Kickstarter and was picked up and released by My Kazoo/Universal Music and voted Top Kids Album of the Year by Daily Candy. And now, A Dog Named Moo is a multi-media project featuring a collection of 13 songs, a “T REXXXX” book, a smartphone app, and several music videos. Plus, essence is developing an educational curriculum based on the project. A Dog Named Moo... I can hardly wait.
I saw Meli Malavasi last night at a big club in Hollywood. She rocked! She was at a keyboard, so I didn't get the dance experience, but the music experience was enough. Clear voice, great lyrics, fabulous crowd connection (not always esy in a packed venue), and of course, that beautiful smile. I had a chance to say hello and congratulate her on releasing her new EP and told her we will play it and talk about it this Friday.
The past doesn’t define you, nor does it make you who you are. These are the words and the definitive core of the musician/artist/provocateur ARI, whose past is complex and painful but also exultant. Regardless of bygone fears and refuges, she will not let her past tunnel vision either her life or her music. Instead, she uses it to inform it. The result is not just music, but a music/artform that makes her one of the most interesting performers on the music scene today.
With a voice that ranges from childlike to ancient crone, a music structure that elides format boundaries and yet stays engrossing and entertaining, and a visual presentation both on stage and in video that is a performance art in itself, ARI is at once alien and comfortably familiar as she emerges with the promise of being a game changer.
Toronto-born LA-based ARI (a stage name she took as part of her public career) studied psychology in college and was a competitive figure skater. She had no interest in music – actually, in her own words, she was running away from music. She decided to study psychology to understand why her family was “messed up” and why she had such an anxiety-filled childhood. She even considered sport psychology as a window into herself. But the answers to her questions were more often in front of a microphone than in a book.
“I became a psych major so I could figure out what the hell was wrong with me,” she says. “I actively avoided music because of previous experiences I’ve had. But, I ended up in the music building.”
The sound, video and art that she incubated in the music building was healing, unapologetic, unbound by genres, and sonically and visually unique while completely relevant to virtually any audience. Emerging with that sound and art was a new persona, ARI, that she calls a “fresh tableau…more me than I’ve ever been…the musical identity that I’ve been working towards my whole life.”
That identity, the one ARI presents on stage and on camera and in the recording studio is a duality of the familiar and the alien. Her debut album, appropriately called (or perhaps ironically called) Tunnel Vision, unfurls a dual identity in a voice and a form that defies categorization but delivers messages that can be simultaneously healing and uncomfortable. This is ARI’s skill – the ability to transform herself into an ethereal being that is nothing like the rest of us and yet resonates closely with all of us. ARI’s music, art, writing, and performance is familiar while strange, putting us at ease while provoking us to think, Yoko Ono-like, beyond our boxes.
“I feel fierce” she explains when asked where the duality of alien and familiar comes from, “ but I feel playful and free. I feel like an outcast, but I’m part of bigger group. I want my art to convey that duality.”
The name “ARI” signals her ferocity and playfulness. In Nordic, it means “eagle”; in Hebrew, it means “lion”. On stage she is both, playing with costume, lights, smoke and sound to create an atmosphere that takes us out of the venue, away from the clinking bar and the buzzing doorway. We hear ferocious music from a beautiful alien creature who makes us think about things we were not prepared for, like human trafficking and cancer. But it is OK because as we enter this otherworld she has created on the stage we discover that she is us. We came for the music; if we pay attention, we will leave with an epiphany.
ARI’s first major release of her creative duality is the album Tunnel Vision, which opens with “Teachers”, a stiletto-sharp song that impales the sexual double standard with her urgent catch-in-your throat voice. “Boys brag about how many sexual encounters they have, while girls – well, if they are asked how many they have had, “ she notes, “ they are criticized for too many or not enough. There should be only one standard. Stop slamming women for doing what we do.” According to ARI, ” being sexual is not dirty. It’s an expression of love.”
The video for “Teachers” is a potent statement of what girls have to go through just to be themselves. Every man, every boyfriend, every father should watch it. ARI’s message, expressed in a style that is both feminine and tough, makes you think about everyday events you never noticed before. She sings, “I’m stronger, I’m wiser” over the images of a young girl shedding her innocent guise and becoming herself, ”a dirty girl downtown”, who, in the end, is just a girl being herself.
ARI goes deeper with “Pretty Little Villains”, pointing us to the human trafficking in girls in our cities, even in our neighborhoods. Inspired by a news report of a young girl captured and sold for sex in a hotel near her in Toronto, ARI could not help but feel her pain. “ I cannot understand how someone could do that for 10 minutes of weird pleasure,” she says of the story that drove her to write “Pretty Little Villains”. The video is unforgettable performance art, shot in one take in her bathtub.
The determination she shows in “Pretty Little Villains” runs through the title track, “Tunnel Vision”, especially in the not-for-radio-lyrics version, in which she proclaims her independence while she tells us she just wants to fall in love again – another duality. Set to electronic drum beats that scaffold her eerie voice, it showcases her skill with music, electronics, production and ability to erase genre lines. It is a perfect prelude to the urgent message she delivers later in “Spit Me Out”, introduced by a heart beat and set off with drum pads as her seductive voice turned childlike by keyboard chimes drives the message home .
“Tunnel Vision is a personal diary of mine, my repression vomited on a record,” ARI explains of the deeply personal nature of the album’s songs like “Time Machine”, which chronicles the cancer developing in a close friend. The “Time Machine” video takes her to the edge of a building, holds us breathless as she contemplates a jump to end it all and then steps back. She sings that she “wants to turn back time for you” to a time before the cancer, and then she jumps, plunging feet first in heavy boots into water, and then disappears, putting a final period on another arresting piece of performance art.
When we talked she had recently returned from Istanbul, having gone through the Ataturk Airport only days before it was attacked by terrorists. She was also in Cyprus during another bombing, very close to her. The thought of her proximity to terror was unsettling. “I am a bit of a utopian”, she says, “but a realist too.” However, the intrusion of reality did not dampen her enthusiasm for the next album, now in the final stages of production, which she promised will be much lighter. “In Tunnel Vision I got my dark matter out,” she says. The next album went much faster and is more fun.”
Fun is good. But even in a fun party dance song like “Tiny Bubbles” on Tunnel Vision, ARI is tuned to the human condition.“ I want to add something to the world”, she says about her “pop with a message.” She knows her music can be healing because it helped heal her. “The most rewarding thing I do is make music that is relevant to people,” she says. “After ‘Time Machine’ I received a flood of letters and posts and emails from people telling me they felt I understood them. I want my music to help, to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Still early in her career ARI is demonstrating the prolific output that often marks a genius. She produced the emotionally exhausting Tunnel Vision in a fairly rapid nine months, is about ready to release album number 2, and is already thinking about a darker album number 3- all while she travels and performs. But most important, she is succeeding in her drive to create music and art that makes a difference, that is relevant to people’s lives. As she expands her footprint in live music, video and perhaps into art spaces like LACMA, I think ARI will continue to ignite and energize thoughtful, healing conversations – the kind we need right now to remind us that our past does not define who we are.
ARI. http://www.ari-music.net/ Tunnel Vision is available on iTunes and Spotify
Music Friday Live is on vacaction until 7/23/16 but you can still get your fix with clasic shows featuring Noctabule, Maggie Szabo, Lori Jean, Bella Gaia and others. Usual time, usual place.
The album, Bunny by Halo Circus may be the most important record of the year, and perhaps the decade.
I don’t say that easily. I say it because Bunny (also referred to as a self-titled Halo Circus) is not only a musical triumph, but it uniquely exemplifies and transcends the demographic and cultural change overtaking the United States, the emergence of a new American Latino generation. This change is a revolution of Millennials and Allison Iraheta and her band Halo Circus is both the spear tip of that revolution and its future, present before us. Halo Circus sings in the key of the second largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world, the USA.
Allison Iraheta’s Latin blood has been hidden under the beats of American pop. Born to immigrants from El Salvador, she was raised in Compton, the creative cauldron of South LA, where she sang, took voice lessons and performed at the local Latin electronics store, La Curaçao. She entered and won the reality contest show “Quinceañera: Mama Quiero Ser Artista” on Telemundo, singing in English and Spanish. That took her to American Idol where she was refashioned into a pop star, went all the way to semifinals, and exited with a record contract that produced two Billboard charted pop albums.
Iraheta’s music sold but her power and heart were muffled, pushing against a pop straightjacket, trying to get out while all around her the American Latino Music revolution was moving forward. Pioneer bands like Los Lobos and Ozomotli were joined by newcomers La Santa Cecelia, Chicano Batman, Pitbull and Gabby Moreno. Mashups and blends were on the radio, YouTube, iTunes and in the parks and plazas and venues of LA. The timing was right when she met double-platinum producer Matthew Hager who had worked with Duran Duran. They formed the band Halo Circus and the straightjacket came off, releasing the cathartic, bilingual urgency that is the album Bunny.
The eruption has been slow building, like a volcano ejecting steam while lava rises from its core. Carefully road testing songs on stages online before releasing singles, Hager monitored Iraheta’s rising lava to free its power only when ready. The result, dropped June 24, 2016, is an album of 13 songs that blow the top off of the volcano. With Halo Circus, Iraheta’s vocal lava joins and superheats the boiling rivers of cultural and political revolution rushing through cities, barrios, farms and the ballot boxes throughout America.
In Bunny, Allison and her Grammy level band – Matthew Hager on bass, the atomic-powered former Jeff Beck drummer Veronica Bellino and master guitarist Brian Stead -- collect the hope and pain of the Mexican corrido, slams it into the terrifying power of Halo Circus’s precisely calibrated rock and injects into your ears with a screaming, sighing, vocal hypodermic. You are intoxicated, addicted and energized in ways no mere chemical can accomplish.
The key to this cocktail is Iraheta’s voice, a finely tuned instrument that seduces you with world-weariness in the brief “He promises the Moon”, sends you screaming toward the sun in “Nothing At All” and then pulls you back gently into an orbit around the dark side of the moon in the mysterious “Far From Eden”. Hager – who both produced the album and plays bass on it - strips down the music in “Yo Me Voy” while the Allison wrings your heart out and then builds it back up to a volcanic climax, obliterating octave lines as she rises and soars.
But Iraheta comes very hard back to earth in “All I Have”, co-written with Hager. “She had the car, the condo, the kinds/until it all came crashing down….she’s on the street fighting for tomorrow…I know that hope isn’t a plan” Iraheta sings, wondering “where we go for tomorrow”.
Where she goes is to “Verdad”, with its martial like music evoking the marching armies of many women on the street fighting for tomorrow. Reinforced by a Mexican accordion and reveling in Bellino’s sophisticated and deceptively simple drumming, it halts to allow the howling Iraheta to downshift for a moment of calm before the picket accelerates. For many, the metaphorical pinnacle of Halo Circus may be the English-language “Guns in his Hands”, where Iraheta directly confronts the barriers to personal life and social change. Augmented masterfully by Victory Mori on classical guitar and Janeen Rae Heller on the musical saw, the song bluntly faces the reality: “I can barely hold you in/You come at me with guns in your hands/and tell me to dance….And I’m Getting tired of this”.
The gloves come fully off in “Band Aid” written by Iraheta, Hager and their long-time friend and inspiration Paul Williams. “We want a revolution/a short cut to solution/no we really need a cure…we’re human after all/we are taught the awful art of being small.” She proclaims denouncing the band aid of her pop past and raising the flag of revolt. “Band Aid” is the anthem of a warrior and a leader of change that reflects back to the early days of the Chicana Movement.
But the album is not all flying flags and revolution There is gentle love, as there would be in any endeavor in the Romance languages. In “You Can’t Take You Away from Me “ Allison uses minor keys and her incomparable bedroom voice to beguile us before she notches up the power and the urgency of need. And of course, there is the Spanish “Desire (Lo Que Vale la Pena) with its addictive hooks in any language and a gorilla-style video that returns Allison to her rots..
This is music for the Pan-American generation. This is music to fight to , music to love to, to dance the dance of national evolution and walk the picket lines of social change. But it is also music from a deep heart that orders you to strip yourself naked of fear, cloth yourself with love and hope and an immigrant banner across your chest. It both stakes out the new territory of metallic alt pop rock in the expanding genre of American Latino Music and moves it to a new level of demand and emotion. Where La Santa Cecelia’s “ICE” lays bare the injustice of deportation, Bunny provide the angry power to fight it.
In this Halo Circus does not bridge the lines of language and culture; it shows us that they have been erased. It says we are young, we are music, we rock together, we love together, we hurt together, we are one together regardless of where our parents came from, regardless of where we came from. And it says we must fight together for our future . This is a warrior’s anthem, but one with a poet’s heart, a combination that is uniquely Latin and All-American.
This week we are presenting America's music, jazz, and blues. yes, I know, both can be traced to African music, but the final formed that has evolved in both cases is known worldwide as unique American music. It is so unique, that many jazz and blues players actually have bigger audiences and do better financially in Europe and Asia than in the USA. Too much competition for the same ears and venues here. We begin with one of America's star jazz guitarists,l Adam Hawley, whose single, "35th St. ft Eric Darius", from his debut album, Just the Beginning, is #1 on the Billboard Jazz chart.
Our second guest is a queen of America's other music, blues - specifically, Memphis Blues. Sandy Carroll has been singing the blues for three decades on two continents (possibly three - we will ask her) and has released another album, Last Southern Belle, a reference not to her status as the last of a dying breed, but more to her relief that the age of the belles has been supplanted by a new age of American tolerance that retains the color and grace of the South, but some of its faults.
Together, these two bookend a dimension of the American music experience adn the music tht the world sees as uniquely ours. This will be a unique and fun show.
Even radio people get vacations and I will be on one Thursday through Monday of this week. But we have a special treat when we return on June 24 - the awesome guitar chops of Adam Haley. And we are working on a surprise guest for segment 2 on June 24, so don't miss it. And this friday, you can find you favourite Musics Friday Live in the archives here at Blogtalk Radio.
Music Friday Live! has teamed up with Gypset Magazine to produce an hour a week English-Spanish radio show/podcast featuring the rising fusion artists of Los Angeles. the south and East sides of LA have become bubbling cauldron of talent throwing together cumbia, banda and ranchera and rap and rock and jazz into new music genre, ALM (American Latino Music) and we will have the hot new artists first. www.blogtalkradio.com/musicfusionla
The EDM Queen of New York City will drop in this Friday to give a peek at her new, just about ready to go album. This has been in the works for months and we are honored she is giving Music Friday listeners an early crack at it. She will only be on a few minutes at the top of the hour, so tune in at 11 am PT/ 1pm ET.