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Saturday, April 23, 2016

TJ Leonard: "High on Livin'"

One of the greatest things about writing on this blog is the number of new artists I am fortunate enough to hear. Out of the blue, someone will send me a link or YT video of a musician of whom I’ve never heard and it ends up being the best part of my day.  Such is the case with the individual here: Mr. TJ Leonard, a Swedish Country artist who sounds more than “at home” with this uniquely American musical genre.

His new album is titled “High on Livin,” a ten track LP that spans moods from folk to rock all accompanying Leonard’s straightforward and clear tenor voice. At times the recordings are gritty, and I mean gritty – a quick listen to “Redneck Neighborhood” as an example of how well distorted guitar and fiddle fit together will remind you that this no album looking for Hollywood sheen (and thank goodness for it!) Alternatively, “The River” is upbeat and uplifting, and I for one, love how prominently the banjo plays.

All in all, this is a very interesting injection into Country music from across the ocean. I know that many fans of the genre are sometimes skeptical of artists that don’t hail from somewhere in the Southern United States, but I firmly believe that foreign influence just shows us how healthy the genre really is. And TJ Leonard is simply the latest example of that health. To learn more, please visit: 

Artist Interview: Jake Ward

Hello, readers! We’re lucky that for this week’s interview we have Jake Ward hailing from the great state of Texas. He’s released an album titled.“Love Don’t Live Here.”

MW: Jake Ward, thanks for being here

JW: Hey, thank you for the opportunity to tell people about what we’re doing with summer coming up.

MW: So, I’d like to start by talking about the incredible live performance posted on your website featuring the song “Take My Hand.” Can you give us a little background on that?

JW: That video showed heart, soul and joy coming together perfectly that night, and particularly that song. We were booked at Brewster Street Ice House in Corpus Christi – one of the great venues in Texas and a tough place to get a booking.  We had been trying forever. Our third single, Take My Hand, had been #2 on the Texas Regional chart all that week and everyone was talking about whether it could make that last rung to #1. Corpus Christi radio really got behind it that week and it was blasting all the time. Then on Friday night – boom: #1! Saturday night at Brewsters was packed. So many people from my life showed up. My first grade teacher was there! The minister from the church I went to through high school. College friends; people from out of town. We were introduced by Austin Daniels, who gave us so much support on his station. When we played that song it felt like electricity was flowing through us –and the fans sang the chorus.  So much pride. So much love. We were so grateful and pumped. And you can see it in that great video generously provided to our site by a really good guy who I also want to thank.

MW: You have a very intense stage-persona, has that always been the case or did you have to work on that aspect of your performance?

JW:  Thank you. It’s a good question and the answer is --both. I was in musicals as a kid; I could learn lines quickly and hit the notes—but I was in character. When I first started performing I was intense, but I kept my eyes closed. It was partly because of intensity, but it put a barrier between me and the audience.  But as I became more determined to put on a great show, I realized that I not only needed to connect with the audience, I needed to interact with the band constantly.  We never play a song exactly the same way so we all have to pay attention to each other constantly.  We don’t exactly improvise but the feel and dynamics of the song depend on the energy, the audience, the venue, lots of stuff. That requires a lot of intensity and connection, but not at the expense of joy for the music. That’s foremost always.

MW: How did you meet the guys from the band?

JW:  Paul and me met in elementary school, lost touch, and met again in college. Paul is an amazing guitarist and friend.  He was in a cover band and I was in a band of buddies, some had learned their instruments just to be in the band. It was amazing how quicky they became solid players, but they entered real life early while Paul and me were still college kids in a band.   We scouted the musicians in town and actually targeted and recruited guys we wanted: I met Mitchell (bass) and Daniel (drums) in school.  We saw Owen playing in another band and gradually lured him over.  No one auditioned; we wanted them and they had plenty of options so basically we selected each other.

MW: In listening to the newest album I had a hard time saying “this is straight-up country.” Your rock influence is very prominent but there are also a lot of folk sounds I could hear among a few other genre-defying aspects. Do you feel comfortable billed as a “country” artist or do you have a better word for it?

JW:  You’re right.  I think it’s fair to say we are a Texas country band because that term suggests  the music is less predictable and more diverse simply because there are so many independent acts; when you make music without a record company as most Texas music acts do, it will  create a wider range of styles and choices.  I think of it as the Texas independent spirit—like the guys at the Alamo who went to make a stand for independence. Not being historical here. It’s just that Texas music has so many independent artists and radio stations who came from all over the Southwest with no money or backing. That independent spirit is in their music. Our music is original with incredible guitar from a guy who cut his teeth on rock and roll, with tight harmonies inspired by Brian Wilson of the  Beach Boys, and lyrics that usually talk about feelings more than stories. So to answer your question, do I have a better word for it? One word? I’ll go with TexasCountry with an asterisk for the explanation.

MW: Can you describe how you got started songwriting? Did you have any mentors in your life or are you more self-taught?

JW: My dad taught me how to play guitar and did his best to imprint great music into my brain – which is how I absorbed Elvis and the Beach Boys. He taught me a lot about playing by ear, and I started writing songs on my own. In the past year, members of my family in Oklahoma heard my music and got the wheels turning to put me together with my cousin Kris Bergsnes, who I had never known or heard about, but who is a great guy and a tremendous songwriter.  Our great grandfathers were brothers, and they were both great fiddlers in Oklahoma during the depression. Kris has taught me a lot about songwriting and music, and we both feel like there’s a certain amount of fate involved because of our long family history of country music. 

Photo: Natalie Rhea

MW: What was the process like in writing/recording “Love Don’t Live Here?”

JW:  That song is so special to the band because the arrangement was such a collaboration. I wrote it but everyone’s contribution is so personal and outstanding. Owen’s fiddle, for example, sounds like a string section. On that song in particular we rehearsed a lot and everyone had ideas about how to make it sound so cool and dramatic. Love Don’t Live Here is ouir album title, not because the title reflects our attitude but because it means a lot to everyone in the band.

MW: The arrangements are really quite stellar – how do those come about?

JW: Credit goes to everyone in the band as well as our ace producer Mason Shirley from Corpus Christi, Texas. Look him up Mr. CMA Artist of the Year,  but book him in advance.

MW: Any big plans for the near future?

JW:  We’re going to start our summer tour, starting  April 28 at Brewster Street, where we had such a great night when Take My Hand went #1. Take My Hand was sort of an anthem that said “go for it.” That’s the plan! We’ll be playing our next single, Lonely Street. which is one of my favorite songs. Vocally, it’s a singer-killer – possibly as deadly as the Star Spangled Banner. The range of music and emotions is like nothing I’ve ever done.  But I also love it because  I wrote with my cousin and it is a shout out to so many things I heard in the car growing up. I mean, Ricky Nelson (another one of dad’s favorites) had a song called Lonesome Town. One of Brian Wilson’s favorite singers --Andy Williams had a song called Lonely Street which is nothing like this but I like the connection. And everyone knows what’s down at the end of Lonely Street right?

To learn more about Jake Ward (including hearing samples from his latest album) please visit

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Madelyn Victoria: Highway of Dreams (Live)

I love live performances. I remember shortly after Mark Sandman died tragically and too soon for all of us Morphine fans, the first album I purchased was the “Detroit Bootleg” CD from my local record shop (yep, we had those back then). It didn’t stop there either – Portishead’s PNYC concert stands as my “holy grail” for sound engineering. So when I was alerted to the fact that Madelyn Victoria (an artist written about here on Contemporary Music Thoughts a few months ago) has a stellar live performance video out I just had to post it here.

The song is “Highway of Dreams” - It’s a foot-tapping song, to be sure. Snappy snares and killer guitar lines. Of course Madelyn’s voice is the same powerful alto we’ve come to love. The song itself has that “power ballad” quality with the lyrics “I’ll just keep on rollin’” signaling a resolute can’t-get-knocked-down attitude which is completely plausible, especially considering Ms. Victoria’s stage presence – it doesn’t look like she could be having more fun. If we’re lucky we’ll be seeing a lot more from this artist, especially more live-videos. 

To learn more about Madelyn Victoria (including a forthcoming EP featuring the song "He Only Loves Me on the Dancefloor") visit her website here:

Friday, April 15, 2016

Alec Henderson Band "Fly Away"

Far too often in a world of electronic sheen and an overemphasis on technological aspects of art and music making, individuality and craftsmanship is lost. In such a world it is nice to know that there are those musicians whose focus lies in crafting great tunes and letting the music speak for itself. This is very much the case in the current Alec Henderson Band release: “Fly Away” (also the title of their newest album).

From the first few guitar thumps, we know that this is unmistakenly an “indie” sound – gritty/low-fi and beautiful. Luckily the first-rate musicianship stands out as the thing we’re hearing. The vocals are declamatory but very melodic at the same time. The lyrics are thoughtful but never bombastic and the drums add just enough punch to the track to keep your foot tapping.

According to the duo’s website the tracks were recorded studio-live and thank goodness there are still musicians who do that. I imagine for fans of live music this will be a welcome balm, especially if you’ve never heard of Alec Henderson Band – it is probably the best reason to go out and catch a live show the next time they are performing!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Artist Interview: Ignacio Zas of Space Lemon

For this week’s interview, we’re lucky to have guitarist Ignacio Zas of the band “Space Lemon.” Six months ago they released their music video for the song “Alone Again” (featured below).

MW: Ignacio, thanks for being here.

IZ: Thank you for having me!

MW: So, in listening to “Alone Again,” one of the first things that stands out is the grittiness of the guitar – would you say this is chiastic of your playing in general?

IZ: Yes I would. Specially at that point in time. When we did the EP I was listening to a lot of riff oriented and guitar heavy music, and I've always been a huge fan of gritty and rough guitar tones. Sometimes it’s something that sounds a little weird or harsh by itself but when mixed with the rest of the band it really creates a cool effect. I would say though, that my approach to guitar playing is constantly changing and evolving and a lot of our songwriting has shifted to the guitar doing different things, not so much carrying the same weight the whole song, which also gives me more freedom and has a different effect.

MW: Those riffs do a great job of sticking in your head. I’m curious if you all write parts separately and then build off the sound as a group or do you have a different approach to creating music?

IZ: It mostly comes together as a whole. There might be a preconceived idea, which I think was the case with Alone Again, I kind of had that riff going on in my head, but songs as a whole come together with the rest of the band. Our songwriting process does not come about in a particular way most of the times. We do come up with most of the songs just by jamming for a while until someone plays something that seems interesting. Once we realize that, and if we’re lucky to remember it, we’ll record it right away.

MW: How many guitars do you own and which one is your favorite?

IZ: I own 5 guitars, but my main ones are my Gibson Les Paul and my Fender Strat. The Les Paul is probably my favorite, because not only does it sound amazing, it’s from 1991, which is a very special year for me although i wasn’t even born. Some of my favorite bands released some of their best work that year and the fact that this guitar came out of that era makes me think it has a certain Mojo that makes it special. HA!. Pearl Jam released Ten, Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger, Nirvana put out Nevermind. Such a great year in music. I have used the Les Paul for mostly everything i do (except for some overdubs on the EP where i used the strat) but I'm starting to slowly branch out to different guitars, particularly a Gretsch, a Jaguar and a 12 string Danelectro. Using different tones is also a way to make the sound of the band evolve, and by using other guitars that sound and feel totally unlike each other it really boosts my creativity taking me to different places.

MW: Care to name-drop a few of your guitar heroes?

IZ: This is a tough one. There are so many guitar players I admire for different reasons. I would say my all time favorite guitar player is David Gilmour. He’s got such an incredible tone and feeling, every time I listen to him I can’t help getting goose bumps. Not only that, but he has a beautiful voice. John Frusciante is another one of my main guitar heroes, Troy Van Leeuwen, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Kim Thayil, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks and the list goes on. I must admit I'm going through a phase where I'm being influenced by songwriters more than guitar players. I’ve been really getting into Trent Reznor's work both with Nine inch Nails and on his own, as well as Alain Johannes and Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards from Failure.

MW: Do you consider yourself to be primarily self-taught or was there someone in your life showing you the ropes for the guitar?

IZ: I’ve been really fortunate to learn from some really amazing people. Both when i was back in Uruguay, where I'm from, as well as here in LA where i moved in 2013. There’s always been a lot of things that I've kind of guided myself on how to learn them, but being close to some outstanding musicians totally opened up my mind to so much i didn’t know could be done on guitar. And I'm mostly not talking about technique, but about the approach one has towards the instrument and music as a whole. I thought i kind of had a handle on my playing until i came to know people that could outplay me in their sleep. A lot of these people were just friends that happened to be amazing at what they did, not only guitar but other instruments too.

MW: Outside of rock are there any other genres that peak your interest?

IZ: Yes. I’ve been really getting into acid jazz, ever since I met an amazing guitar player called Jinshi Ozaki that showed me the ropes. That mix of rock, blues, funk and jazz really got to me. It’s very inspiring and really takes my playing places I wouldn’t normally go. I’ve also been listening to more Jazz, fusion, reggae, classical music. It’s really good to sometimes listen to completely different genres because it clears my mind and helps me bring a different element to the music I make.

MW: How did you come to be a part of Space Lemon?

IZ: Well, after being around the music scene playing with some bands and doing some sessions I met a girl called Ale Robles, who’s an amazing drummer, and we discovered we liked a lot of the same bands. A little after we met we went to a show Queens of the Stone Age was doing at The Wiltern in LA, to kick off their tour for Like Clockwork. It was mind blowing and when we left we started talking about jamming together. We started playing and really hit it off. We eventually met Tommi who’s the singer and Felipe, the bass player, and Space Lemon was born.

MW: It seems like religion plays a big part in the lyrics of “Alone Again,” does the notion of faith influence your creativity a lot?

IZ: None of us are religious in the band. We represent different aspects of society in the video for the song, one of them being religion. But not just religion itself, more specifically the act of trying to shove beliefs down someones throat and forcing them to obey certain rules or follow a particular way of life. We have nothing against religion or religious people, we just think everybody is entitled to be free and have their own opinion (as long it doesn’t involve causing harm to others of course), so it’s really a representation of what we think can be negative about religious “organizations”. I think that not being religious, faith takes a different meaning. We all have it in a way or another, and what faith really is is subjective, but what i can say from a personal standpoint is that my faith is the trust i have in myself, the people i love and the world around me. I know that can lift me up and help me move forward, and as such it does influence my creativity. Not necessarily in a good way, because creation works in mysterious ways. Sometimes when going through a difficult time what comes out is better than the things that i write when being in a happier place. Sometimes it’s the complete opposite. I guess that’s the beauty of it.

MW: Anything new on the horizon?

IZ: Yes, I've been working with Space Lemon on a new album and we’re planning on doing some tours. Possibly West Coast and Mexico. We’ve also been playing live in the LA area, trying out the new songs and seeing how people react to them. We might release a single or two before we release the full-length album but we’ll see.

MW: Thank you so much for spending time with me!

IZ: Thank you!