Music As A Means To Self-Realization 

 

Rob Chiarelli (far left) & Michael James (far right) presenting a master class on mixing at Pro Audio LA.

“That’s a great idea! We should do it. If only…”

When inspiration strikes, do you ever think you should make your idea a reality? Why don’t you make it happen? If only you had more time, more money or less stress…

Don’t worry–you’re not alone. Our first-world lifestyles are in many respects defined by the myriad responsibilities that compete for our life force. Most of us cannot afford to commit to a grand endeavor simply because of its inherent coolness factor, so we tend to factor ROI (return on investment) into our risk-based decisions. There is nothing wrong with that–it’s simply reality. But it is also a huge obstacle to self-realization, the fulfillment of one’s own potential.

While there are many strong reasons to not take action, some intrepid souls find a way to rise above the words “if only” and then do something terrific. They do it not for the money, but rather because it’s cool…and because they can.

I’m writing this blog post with the hope that it may inspire some of us to step outside our comfort zones and make something beautiful before our lives become even more complicated and our burdens even heavier. Whatever you choose to do, do it because you want to, not because you need a payday. Its manifestation should be its own reward. That way, you can’t lose. Plus, you just might win. Maybe win big.

Here’s a brief list of self-realized things that some of my friends are currently doing, just because they can.

Zoo Labs is a music and tech “incubator” founded by altruists/philanthropists Vinitha and Dave Watson. Their excellent two-week music residency at their state-of-the-art, in-house recording studio not only results in a record release, but also in “scaffolding” from which recording artists can launch their next career phase in a meaningful accelerated manner. The Watson crew has put together a team of forward thinking geniuses who provide highly relevant workshops along with a resident gourmet chef. Their ROI is not measured in dollars–it’s all about doing something special for the good of humanity.

Rob Chiarelli has approximately 100 Gold Records and 16 Grammy nominations on his discography. He works as a producer and/or mix engineer with superstar artists ranging from Christina Aguilera and Will Smith to Janet Jackson and Madonna. While Rob is in constant demand, he somehow manages to do things that are important to his family–and to up-and-coming recording professionals in need of guidance. Rob and I both believe in giving back (or paying forward), so we frequently team up to do workshops, seminars, master classes and Q&A sessions for music schools, pro audio retailers and manufacturers. We do it because we can, and because the act of service to others is a vital part of our spiritual and philosophical belief system.

The relationship of Walter Heath to his music is an excellent example of doing something because it is intrinsically cool. He was signed to a major label record deal in the early ’70s, and recorded a funky soulful album, You Know You’re Wrong Don’t Ya Brother, produced by L.A. session ace Louis Shelton, featuring the hottest studio cats of the era. Today Walter performs and records music with the express goal of inspiring himself and others to deepen their spirituality by setting Baha’i prayers, meditations and virtues to melodic tunes. Music weaves through his life like DNA through his body. I have seen firsthand how powerful a unifying tool his singing is as it draws together seemingly disparate cultural groups. Check out his tasty home-brewed CD from 2009, Praise His Name, for some nourishment for the soul.

The Invisible Man (Sam Martinez, Jaben Pennell and Tim Torgerson) is a Contemporary Christian band whose ministry takes it literally around the world, instruments in hand. The darlings of the 1998 EAT’M Festival, its members have since found a balance of secular and spiritual pursuits. Torgerson and Martinez are local-hero, working-class family men who enrich their communities with not only their musicality, but also their mentoring skills. Pennell juggles being a single father of two with his fulltime gig as a record producer and session musician. A human vortex of energy, he also teaches recording techniques and A/V courses at Judson University as an adjunct professor. Pennell founded Vibehouse Productions as a passion to serve indie artists outside the metropolitan Chicago area, but thanks to one of his records winning 2013 Golden Melody Awards (Chinese equivalent of Grammy) Album Of The Year, it turned into his bread and butter.

The underlying theme of these four examples is that they were all done without financial reward as a consideration. Therefore, they were done with a purity of purpose and, one might say, artistic integrity. Inspiration happened, and these folks sprung into action. They created their own unique musical versions of the Watts Towers: the creation may look crazy to an outside investor, but the artistic manifestation is its own reward.  Just like a life well lived!

 

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At The End Of The Day, Musicians Are Entertainers

Trailer Radio 1

Even John Lennon knew that The Beatles had to be entertainers—the point was made early when the very green Beatles were ordered to Mach Schau! Mach Schau! by a Hamburg club-owner in their early days on the Reeperbahn. From making motion pictures to prancing around in tights, the most beloved and emotionally resonant rock band in history did what needed to be done to entertain the fans, who in turn supported the band with fierce loyalty and devotion.

Nearly 20 years ago Dan Rothchild introduced me to virtuoso guitarist David Michael Weiss. Dave at the time fronted SlackJaw (aka SlackJaw Blues Band), who, despite their prodigious musical talent, remained unsigned. All the requisite elements were in place: good songs, serious chops, tight band and commanding vocals. So why weren’t they signed? Probably because they relied exclusively on the music. As far as I know, David and his crew didn’t spend their time mugging for the camera while dressed like Peter Pan or Robin Hood. Surely some photos would have surfaced by now.

Because I dug both the music and the human being, I signed David to my production company, Alternator Records, and planned to include him in a joint venture label deal with RCA Records.  Everything was in place for a successful career to launch–until the RCA brass killed the deal, presumably as a byproduct of an impending corporate reorganization.  Whatever the reason, Slackjaw Dave was again without a clear roadmap to domination of the Top 40 charts.

So he moved to New York, armed with a Telecaster and an early Matchless DC30 with the fabled green transformer. Interesting factoid: I bought that amp from Greg Lake of ELP before playing it on A.J. Croce’s Transit and New Radicals’ Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed, Too, and eventually sold it to David because he made it sound much better than I ever could! But that’s another story for another time.

Fifteen years later Dave resurfaced in my life. He had cracked the musician-as-entertainer code by seamlessly blending smoking hot chops with redneck comedy lyrics and an over-the-top, politically insensitive persona known as Travis Whitelaw. He hooked up with producer and co-writer Joel Shelton to compose and record the album Sexarkana!, which was well received by fans and critics alike and garnered tremendous airplay on XM-Sirius (the only airplay obtainable in light of those pesky FCC regulations for the very “blue” material). The downside, if there was one, was that Travis was so over-the-top and one-dimensional that the joke could easily become old…or convincing. Apropos of that, Dave told me, “Funny and true story: the first time I met Shannon was at a Travis gig where she COMPLETELY bought the shtick and thought I was an actual potty-mouthed redneck. She loved it. I was very proud of the fact that I had fooled a genuine Southerner with my Travis routine.”

Rather than running the risk of overstaying his welcome by allowing the persona to overshadow the person, Travis asked David to re-emerge and assume guitar, vocal and co-writer duties in a super-tight country-rock outfit called Trailer Radio, led by West Virginia spitfire and bona-fide coal miner’s daughter Shannon Brown. Trading the id-driven redneck satire for a clever urban hillbilly shtick, the new band provides a platform for David to showcase his 6-string badassery within the context of an American subculture rich in tradition, tall tales, and culinary delights (boll weevils for dinner?!) as far from Manhattan’s dirty water dogs and thin crust pizza as is imaginable.

Where Travis Whitelaw’s entertainment value is rooted in shock, Trailer Radio’s appeal is in its humanity. The protagonists of TR’s songs are regular folks who find themselves in uncomfortable yet plausible situations. It’s easy to love Trailer Radio’s lead singer, Shannon Brown, when she sings in “Tar Beach” of a rooftop Manhattan summer “staycation” cobbled together from modest resources: “We don’t need no Disney cruise, we can climb up on the roof, drop a lawnchair and a cooler on Tar Beach.” She knows her lane, and she knows how to work it.

Same goes for the completely confused fellow, courtesy of Dave’s spirited vocal delivery, living in the doghouse in [My Heart Is On] “The Bottom Of Her Boots.” You can’t help but feel compassion for the guy as he announces, “Holy crap, she’s flipped her lid, I don’t know just what I did, my recliner’s gone, remote’s been hid, my clothes are on the lawn.” Poor guy…his woman crushed his heart, painted his man cave pink and pawned his shotgun along with her wedding ring. But impossibly he seems radiant in his acquiescence to his fate. There’s a price to be paid for every good story, and Dave’s character revels in the narrative, which makes the ride a fun one for the rest of us.

I’m pretty sure that Trailer Radio’s current success is based on much more than blazing riffs and catchy songs. This band is not afraid of holing up in the woodshed. Their sophomore effort, Country Girls Ain’t Cheap, is clearly the result of a well oiled machine that fine tuned its tightly crafted, hook-laden songs both in private and on countless merciless New York stages. Like the Fab Four, TR understands that folks like to be entertained.

If there’s a life lesson in today’s blog post for recording artists and producers, I suppose it would be to practice one’s entertainment skills as much as one’s artistry. When we make folks feel good about themselves, they reward us with their continued presence in our lives and businesses. Have fun, open up, and live fearlessly!