A longform feature about the origins and synthesis of Rick Hall, Jimmy Hughes, Fame and the Muscle Shoals Sound for Red Bull Music Academy Daily.
I researched, compiled, produced and wrote the liner notes for Numero Group's comprehensive reissue of Australian punk band The Scientists.
"Hold On Magnolia" is a longform feature commissioned by The Pitchfork Review, which is the print journal produced by the music website Pitchfork.com. The article explores the life of singer-songwriter Jason Molina, with emphasis on the creation of his heralded album "The Magnolia Electric Co."
I interviewed the band, researched the early 90s Manhattan music scene and touched base with its producers and engineers for these long form liner notes that accompanied Numero Group's box set reissue of NYC rock band Blonde Redhead. The notes contextualized the band's first two LPs and earliest singles.
Angel Olsen gave a very candid interview, and her bold personality really shines through in this piece.
Mavis Staples is a legend and a delightful human being. We talked for nearly 90 minutes for this piece, and I enjoyed every moment.
This is a lengthy review of the Netflix documentary Tig, centered on the comedian Tig Notaro, for FLOOD magazine.
This feature on Chicago experimental folk musician Ryley Walker was one of the first lengthy pieces written about him.
Early and pre new age music is a great interest of mine, and I was elated to work on a reissue of one of the genre's finest and most overlooked releases. I wrote the liner notes for the Numero Group's deluxe reissue of Bay Area artist Jordan De La Sierra's masterpiece, "Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose," which was for the first time lovingly recreated from the original master tapes. Here's the full text:
"Ten years before the New Age genre was recognized by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences at its annual awards show in 1987, the genre’s entrancing burbles and post-folk finger-picking were brimming from home studios all over the Bay Area. And in 1977, an outsider to this outsider scene arose to become one of its greatest talents. A young multidisciplinary artist, trained in classical technique and chock-full of innovational ideas and ecstatic truths, Jordan De La Sierra has a mind and vernacular soaring with cosmic concepts, but his gentle heart is unvaryingly open and accessible on earth.
His generosity and commitment to artistic integrity is perhaps why De La Sierra is first to attribute the inspiration for his interstellar space piano to his friend and teacher Terry Riley, the San Francisco minimalist composer who, along with La Monte Young, championed the idea of “pure sound with shape”—notes that have not been confined by Bach’s Western, “well tempered” piano tuning. Instead, De La Sierra’s work incorporates the opposite point of view, what Young called “well tuned,” where notes are not flattened or sharpened in order to fall into an octave of 12 equal semitones, but instead reverberate to the fullest extent of their potential at varying lengths, and simply bend within their player’s improvisations and textural sonic explorations.
Born in 1947 to parents of Slovakian and Spanish origins, De La Sierra was raised in California’s San Joaquin Valley, spending his adolescence on the basketball courts and in the theaters of Fresno. His first recordings were made in his mid-teens for Hollywood’s Joli label, which issued “The Voice In The Wind” b/w “Every Time It Rains” in 1965. At 17, De La Sierra gave his first solo classical vocal recital, singing English, French, German, and Italian art songs, and earned a full scholarship to San Francisco’s prestigious Conservatory of Music, where he studied theory, composition and voice. A heady student of the avant-garde, he performed the works of John Cage, Earl Brown and Robert Ashley with New Music ensembles at the Conservatory, while also exploring his identity in song craft.
Soon after graduation, De La Sierra gathered an avant ensemble of players for his first original work outside of school, which became the first interdisciplinary outfit to perform at the Mission District’s Project Artaud, a multi-story abandoned warehouse that had been renovated to support local theater productions. Here he collaborated with musical minds but also across artistic genres, incorporating elements by light-artist Daniel Conrad, who fashioned his first “light instrument” for De La Sierra’s pieces “A Stitch of Light of Fragrance and the Music and the Sphere” and “Music in Waves and Poppies Dance the Light and Sound of Nature.” Choreographer Carlos Carvajal’s assemblage of dancers from the company of The San Francisco Ballet added physical movement to Sierra’s sounds.
As important as the artistic community in San Francisco was to the young De La Sierra, his evolving interests across disciplines were growing, as was his penchant for solo exploration. He met Terry Riley in 1969 while doing un-credited post-graduate studies at Mills College Center for Contemporary Music with Robert Ashley, and became enthralled with Riley’s In C and A Rainbow In Curved Air. Riley, through La Monte Young, had grown increasingly enthralled by Indian classical singing, especially Kyhal master Pandit Pran Nath. Following Nath’s 1970 visit to New York with Young and visual artist Marian Zazeela, he traveled west to mentor a number of minimalist composers, including Riley and his younger disciple De La Sierra, who would spend the next three years under the tutelage of Pran Nath. This inspired his first cycle of meditational songs, Music In Bong, and one of those pieces, “Seahorse Butterfly Cuckoo Bee Swan Zebra Owl,” was performed on KPFA in March of 1972.
Founded in 1949, Berkeley’s KPFA was the first listener-supported radio station in the United States. Its freeform program directors would send readings of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind into the living rooms of the Bay Area’s intelligentsia, and in 1973 open up a weekly late night slot for Stephen Hill’s three-hour “space music” radio program Hearts of Space. Hill relocated to San Francisco in 1970 after obtaining a graduate degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, but abandoned the building of physical spheres for the construction of sonic spaces.
“I met Jordan one memorably wet November night in 1975 when he appeared completely without warning at the back door of KPFA,” Hill wrote in the abandoned liner notes to 1985’s Narada cassette reissue of Gymnosphere. “[Jordan] announced that he had come to play the piano on the Hearts of Space program, which was already in progress! Having heard a previous recording, and being duly impressed not only with his single-minded intensity, but also with his enormous physical presence, I agreed.”
The recording of Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose took place at a small studio in Berkeley, which while affordable, lead to a few hiccups in the vision for the sound of the trans-dimensional space piano. The pair rented a nine-foot Steinway D concert grand from Sherman Clay in downtown San Francisco, and hired a piano tuner to reconfigure it from the Steinway’s tempered scale to a well tuned scale at the start of each of the three days of the session. Hill then secured a basement studio at 1750 Art Street, a nonprofit created for the advancement of New Music run by the contemporary classical vocalist Tom Bucker, where Hill often worked and which fit the modest budget for the session
Five-and-a-half hours of music were captured in that subterranean space. De La Sierra transformed the 15-foot room into an Eastern temple strewn with silks, gardenia flowers, bottles of essential oils, stones and energy crystals. He defines Gymnosphere as a “temple of aesthetic-action,” and this sonic enclave was that theory in motion, illustrating both the importance of De La Sierra’s multi-sensory perception as well as his forward thinking. The dark room was illuminated by a single Indian ghee candle, which De La Sierra assembled by placing a wick twisted from cotton in a jar of clarified butter. Natural drones were achieved through the adept utilization of the Steinway’s sustain and soft pedals. However the tiny studio lacked any natural acoustics, which stunted De La Sierra’s vision for the richness of this space music. Unsatisfied with their results, Hill and De La Sierra doubled down on a concept that the young composer had learned under Terry Riley’s wing: Instead of playing with only a short tape-delay echo used to expand and multiply each note, the pair rounded up a team of assistants and took to the iconic Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill, home to perhaps the greatest natural acoustics in all of the Bay Area.
That long, foggy day in November of 1976, in the house of worship atop one of San Francisco’s original Seven Hills, is largely responsible for Gymnosphere’s simultaneously primal and futuristic sound. Inside the church the original recordings from the studio were played through speakers and recorded, and these reverberations captured within the walls of the stone monolith were mixed by Hill with De La Sierra’s original piano takes and tape delay echoes, resulting in the epic sound of the space piano, meant to transport listeners from their earthly locale to a cosmic realm in the great spirit-field.
With the Hearts Of Space record label still eight years away from launch, Hill referred De La Sierra to what was the best Bay Area option at that time, Unity Records, founded in 1975 by Peter Georgi, an inexperienced rich kid from Marin County out to make waves in this new era. Georgi’s original mission with Unity was to license as many songs by Bay Area artists at possible, those minds creating serene and otherworldly vibrations out of home studios, in order to assemble a series of compilations introducing the world to this new San Francisco sound. In this pursuit he enlisted the studio expertise of Hill, who was to transfer and re-master Georgi’s catalogue. While only one compilation was ever released, Anthology: Volume One Give Me Wings (UR 1000), in the process Georgi took an interest in De La Sierra as well as Iasos, Laura Allan and other pre New Age visionaries crafting ecumenical compositions, and signed each artist to modest one album deals.
Gymnosphere’s level of sonic manipulation was nearly impossible to perform live in the late ’70s, requiring equipment that was too costly and too unwieldy for small New Age performances, but De La Sierra was invited to play works inspired by the Gymnosphere sessions in the lobby of San Francisco’s Hyatt Regency from July through November of 1977. By the time Unity released the double album Gymosphere: Song of the Rose that same year, the ever evolving multi-disciplinarian had his sights set on visual art, poetry and developing a Dylan-esque singer-songwriter persona on the back of dozens of songs he’d written with lyrics centered on fictional characters. To reduce costs, Unity cut Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose in half in 1978, jettisoning the second and third sides and De La Sierra’s 20-page book of India-inspired drawings and musings on the tableau of space. As De La Sierra walked the singer-songwriter line, Unity’s founder Georgi had strayed from the path. After a series of financial mishaps that lead to a complete loss of trust in the community, Unity quietly folded in 1982.
From 1980 to 1984 De La Sierra fronted The Jemstone Band, before returning to his now-en vogue New Age roots with the Teja Bell-produced Valentine 11 album for the Sonoma-based Global Pacific label in 1988. A follow up album, Soft Science, was scheduled for release in 1989, but was shelved when Global Pacific began to fall apart. The album remains unreleased. In 1984 Stephen Hill and Anna Turner launched the Hearts of Space label and issued more than 150 ambient, electronic and new age titles before being bought out by Valley Entertainment in 2001. In January 2013 the Hearts of Space radio program celebrated its 1,000th broadcast on the 40th anniversary of its debut. Jordan De La Sierra has returned to the San Joaquin Valley, and continues to pursue music, poetry and visual art, every work and thought and breath guided by his signature mantra, 'In truth and goodness and beauty.'"
Many people don't know that I am a classically-trained ballet dancer, and jump at any opportunity to cover dance. This short but gorgeous piece about the Joffrey Ballet's production of Romeo and Juliet is a personal highlight. It's an example of how my design and narrative visions came together in a very compelling way.
Secretly Canadian released an incredible collection of Jason Molina b-sides, demos and previously unreleased songs for Record Store Day 2013 in a gorgeous box set titled "Journey On: Collected Singles." I had the pleasure of writing the accompanying liner notes for the collection. Here's the full text.
"A voice ascended from the deflated confines of the Midwestern Rust Belt in the mid ’90s, born of a love for heavy metal but harnessed by the earthy drawl of Mid-Century Americana, dusty roots rock and iconic country songwriters. When woven with its piper’s earnest narratives of angels and devils, of glory and of mercy, of strength and of great pain, that voice was the very picture of the might of those once churning assembly lines and steel mills and the delicate flourishes of the mouth of the river that fed them.
Jason Molina of Lorain, Ohio was an artist plagued by opposing forces and Songs: Ohia was the saddled mare on which he straddled both torture and light, whether whispering solo over minimal guitar strumming or crafting enduring anthems with an evolving cast of friends and music makers. Gathered here are the charming, haunting and — much like the totality of the Songs: Ohia catalogue — elegantly disparate moments lost in the void of limited pressings and merch tables at last-minute shows Molina often booked mid-tour from payphones across the country. Throughout the band’s storied course Molina’s creative prolificacy often outran the pace and resources of pre-laptop production, which is why the 7” record became an integral component to the dynamism of Songs: Ohia.
The nearly 65-year-old format was touted early as the 45 and was marketed to young audiences with limited resources and a rabid appetite for what they’d heard on the radio. But by the time 7” culture had hit the ’90s, the formula had been turned on its head, eschewing the motivation for a hit single in favor of a steady and financially accessible churn of art for art’s sake, packaged in a diminutive disc strapping enough to bare the brunt of the feverish creative pace of the punk and indie acts burning the candle at both ends throughout the far reaches of the underground at that time. The spectrum of ravenous fans was more limited than that of the 45 era, but as a collector’s work is never finished, the work of the fringe was always in demand.
The goal of the 7”? To burn bright, to share and inspire via a portable format that artists could afford to self-produce and ship and fan kids with shallow pockets could afford to buy at basement shows and ramshackle all-ages joints — three dollars was the equivalent of two skipped high school lunches, after all. Though monetary limitations were often at the core of the 7” single, Molina knew that not everything his heart purged belonged on the studio LP, and as committed to the format as he was, he also knew when to withhold. When an LP was not possible, this was a way to quickly release virgin and largely unedited material.
It was also a way to share space with friends and collaborators, as we so often saw with the split 7” between likeminded and, at times, polar opposite creators throughout the decade. The modest platter was DIY at its core—from the pieced and patchy cover art to the low-fi sonic content—and a haven for those, like Molina, who could not help but to create, to live and to breathe, outside the realm of commercial consciousness. If ever there was an individual immune to passing trends it was Molina, and his copious, at times haphazard, early catalogue speaks volumes to his unwavering vision as he steered Songs: Ohia both as a compact singer-songwriter vehicle and as a big-rig act churning out touching and unforgettable twang-tinged anthems.
We know “Freedom Pt. 2” and “Soul” as the Nor Cease There Never Now 7” on Palace Records that, in 1996, breathed life into Songs: Ohia as we know it. Those two tracks cleared the course for the impassioned, front-and-center quaver we’d invite into our headphones over — depending how you count them — seven proper studio LPs, three EPs, and numerous singles and tour-only releases during the life of Songs: Ohia. “Cabwaylingo,” the captivating acoustic opener of the 1997 self-titled “Black Album,” memorable in its flourishes of brushed drums, meandering banjo, and of course, that voice, is resurrected here as “Vanquisher,” a haunting 1998 reimagining in which Molina convinces us that there are “fewer greater former ghosts” over gentle electric guitar lines as clear as his hushed-yet-confident oration. The beloved “Lioness” reappears with the addition of Molina collaborator and comrade Jennie Benford of Jim & Jennie And The Pinetops, lending a powerfully somber layer to “the look of the lioness to her man across the Nile.”
These are but a few of the gems mined from the caverns of the Songs: Ohia singles spanning the six years until Molina’s hushed formation of the Magnolia Electric Co. It’s here we relive his generous and honest performances, his humor, and his heart. These aren’t the maudlin ramblings so often pegged in the press, but the triumphant tales spun from the mind of an ordinary Midwestern man as goofy as he was fervent, who was able to execute an extraordinary body of work in a short amount of time.
Almost twenty years after Molina’s voice first rang out from Ohio, in this brave new world of streaming, the discussion surrounding the resurgence of vinyl rarely includes the 7”. The original and re-imagined underground aural morsels once housed in the format are now buried in digital EPs and embeddable media. The tangible, wax-fabricated evidence of a self-producing culture of creativity has given way to this modern age, but it is our hope that Jason Molina’s unabashed utterances and refusal of trend is honored across the 18 sides of this collection—a thoughtfully resurrected series of tokens to a great artist gone too soon, to hear and to hold, and to live on in those who were there and those who wish they would have been."
I've written a number of album reviews for the Chicago Reader, which makes good use of the vast amount of time I spend pouring through new music each day. Here are a few of my favorites. Click on the link below to read my review.
Each week the music section of Time Out Chicago's print edition ran a series of previews of upcoming concerts. The images contain a few of my favorites. Today, I write concert previews regularly for the Chicago Reader's "Soundboard" section. Here's a recent example.