Interview: Frances England

Frances England

Frances England

Me and Frances England, we go way back.  Like, more than a decade.

Frances was the very first artist I ever interviewed for this website (read it here -- really, go ahead and read it), and it's been fun as an observer to see her career grow in interesting ways, from learning to play live to releasing an album for adults (2013's Paths We Have Worn).

As unique as her five previous albums have sounded compared to much of the kindie sonic landscape, they're not quite like the sui generis sound of her latest release, Explorer of the World, which is released tomorrow, April 1.  The record was co-produced by Dean Jones and Dave Winer (best known in the kids music world for being one of Justin Roberts' Not Ready for Naptime Players). Full of found sounds and dynamic percussion and rhythmic choices, the album celebrates exploration and travel with verve and love.  (Listen to "City Don't Sleep" here, and preferably in a car, as Frances reports that Winer "insisted that several songs ("My Street, "Ballad for a Beatboxer," "Street Life," and "City Don't Sleep") be mixed like a hip hop record-- you don't get full effect if you're not surrounded by speakers.")

In this interview, Frances and I talk about the musical and visual inspirations for the album, how she, Dean and Dave worked together, and what her home -- San Francisco -- means to her.

Zooglobble: What sort of sounds are you drawn to? What sort of visuals are you drawn to?

Frances England: Music I'm drawn to... I listen to a lot of different genres: mostly indie stuff, but also some Pop, R&B, Folk, Country, Soul, Metal (just kidding, not metal).  But everything else.  I appreciate songs with strong melodies and hooks, and also love when there is some interesting - slightly weird - subtle stuff happening underneath... probably why I'm so drawn to bands like Sparklehorse, Magnetic Fields, Woods, Postal Service, Vampire Weekend.

When I was young, I watched a lot of Soul Train in the '80s and that show gave me a great appreciation for Soul and R&B sounds. I don't thing that's ever been reflected in my songs until this new album, Explorer of the World. But I spent a long time figuring out vocal melody arrangements for these new songs and lots of that is influenced by those sounds. And Dave Winer :)

Visuals I'm drawn to: I can honestly say that I'm inspired every single day by the artful and the ordinary things around me. I have a dog so I am out walking her everyday and am constantly noticing interesting colors, patterns, lines, contrasts. I'm also really interested in both the thoughtful and the random choices architects/gardeners/painters/homeowners make... it's everywhere and so visually stimulating to me.

There are lots of artists I'm curious about too and love seeing what they are working on: Wendy McNaughton, Nathaniel Russell, Maira Kalman, Keri Smith, Miranda July, Thomas Campbell... lots and lots!  It's hard to keep up... so many interesting people making interesting things :)

Portion of Chris Raschka illustration, inspiration for "City Don't Sleep"

Portion of Chris Raschka illustration, inspiration for "City Don't Sleep"

What visuals did you use as inspiration for each song?  (I recall you telling me that you used some Chris Raschka as inspiration for "City Don't Sleep," for example.)

Regarding using visual inspiration for the songs... As you know, I'm a DIY musician - [I] never studied music so sometimes I have a hard time explaining with words and vocabulary what I'm hearing or envisioning for the songs inside my head.  I do a lot of demo'ing/arranging songs at home and I always have a pretty clear idea of what I'm going after but with this album especially, I used visuals a lot to help Dean and Dave understand the vibe I was looking for.

For "City Don't Sleep," I gave them some photos of Chris Raschka's book Happy to Be Nappy and told them I wanted the song to sound like the picture.  Vibrant, funky, loose, playful... basically let's make it sound like this picture (see above).

When I traveled to Dean's studio in New York I brought about 50 photographs with me into the studio... When you are doing vocals for a song, you spend a lot of time standing in front of a music stand and for each song, I would lay out a collage of photographs on the stand  and before we started recording,  I'd show Dave + Dean some of the images I was looking at... I think it helped... it was also nice for me to have a visual reminder of what was inspiring me when I wrote the song at home in San Francisco. [Here] are some [more] examples of some of the collages I'd build:

"See What We Can See"

"See What We Can See" collage

"See What We Can See" collage

"My Street"

"My Street" collage

"My Street" collage

"City of Hills"

"City of Hills" collage

"City of Hills" collage

Without asking you to specifically speak for Dean and Dave, what was their reaction to this approach?  Were there cases where they specifically locked on to the sound in your head, or where what they did was way off what you were expecting?

Dean and Dave probably thought, "Oh boy, here we go with some California crazy."  :)  

I don't know what they thought, to be honest. The collages were more for me than for them, but I realized while we were in the studio that having visuals probably helped convey the tone and mood of certain songs, for sure.  It definitely doesn't hurt!

Dave Winer and I had done months and months of pre-production demoing prior to stepping into the studio so we had a really good idea on direction before we started recording. But the in-studio chemistry and collaboration between the three of us was really fantastic - and it was basically just the three of us in the studio making this record. Even though we have very different musical influences, we have similar taste - we agree on what's good and what's not good.  So that makes things so much easier from the get go.

But, of course, there were lots of surprises.  "Street Life" was probably the biggest in that it steered furthest away from what I thought the song was going to be. Going in, I knew I wanted to start it minimally with the bucket drum, bass, vocals and field recording sounds.  At the first chorus, Dean added beats from this amazing vintage Maestro Rhythm King drum machine and started doing these fun little electronic glitches with my vocals and some analog synths.

Then, the vocal breakdown part in the middle of the song happened so spontaneously. Dean's kids just happened to have some friends over for a playdate and we asked them to come in and lay down vocals with all of us singing the "ha ha ha " bits together.  They were game so we all crowded round the microphones and spent about 5 minutes recording what truly sounded like a big hot mess of vocals.  But Dean had a vision and finesses it into this cool TuneYards-inspired goodness.

The song was getting there but still missing something until Dave came up with the funky horn/melodica lines that break into the group vocals and take the song out - it's so playful, imitating car horns and brought such a joyful, funky soul to the song.  

It's probably my favorite song on the album and it was one of those instances (there were many) when I felt so profoundly grateful to Dean and Dave for helping me create something so much better and more interesting than what I'd initially envisioned. That's the magic of music.

Explorer of the World cover

Explorer of the World cover

It's funny, reading this, it's almost like *you* were the producer and *Dean and Dave* were the musicians, that you had the grand vision and built the musical foundation and infrastructure, and their job was to help you build the walls and furnish the house.  Not that you weren't also making the music, but this sounds a little more like a director directing a movie -- you have a definite sense of what you want, but it requires the input and work of others to accomplish the vision.

It felt like a fun team effort.  Because I wrote the songs, I  think it’s natural that I would be  “directing” a lot of what happened, but Dave and Dean also did a lot of that, especially keeping the big-picture in mind to make it all sound like one cohesive album.  I really hope I get to make another album with those two again.

What does San Francisco mean to you? You're obviously a fan of the city -- what role does the city generally ("city" defined however you'd like) play in your life?

San Francisco… boy, I do love this place so much. My husband and I moved here almost twenty years ago and thought we’d only be here for a couple of years, but we both feel in love with it and have been here ever since.

We live in the Outer Sunset, a half block away from the N train line and five blocks away from the Pacific Ocean.  I love that mix of city and wide open natural space. The landscape is dramatic here - we live right on the very edge of the country and it feels unlike any other part of  the United States that I’ve been to.  I also love how diverse it is and the fact that my kids are exposed to so many different cultures here.  And the neighborhoods are so fascinating to explore - each has its own unique character and just walking down the sidewalk is interesting because there’s so much happening around.

So the city plays a huge role in my life.  At this point, it actually feels like a part of my identity, and it’s come to be a place that comforts me, challenges me, stimulates me, and inspires me every single day.  I feel very lucky to live here.

Photo credits: Frances (John Funke), Chris Raschka illustration (Chris Raschka), all others (Frances England)

Interview: Sandra Velasquez (Moona Luna)

Sandra Velasquez

Sandra Velasquez

Sandra Velasquez has worn a number of different musical hats -- the leader of the multicultural rock and dance band Pistolera, one-half of the duo SLV, and most relevant for this neck of the woods, the driving force behind the duolingual band (and Pistolera alter ego) Moona Luna.

But as you'll see in the interview below, Velasquez is as passionate about travel as she is about music.  To my ears, the recently-released P A N O R A M A, Moona Luna's third studio album, is the band's most personal-sounding record, and after talking about travel with Velasquez, it's clear to me why that is.  Read on for Velasquez's memories of her favorite travel spots, how travel informed the making of the new album, and pictures from Velasquez's own camera.

Zooglobble: What are your first memories of traveling?

Sandra Velasquez: First memories of traveling are with my family to Mexico. My mother is from Guerrero and we would go visit her family. Part of her family lives on a coconut plantation. I have distinct memories of watching people climb coconut trees barefoot with a machete strapped to their belt and cut down coconuts for everyone, then cut off the top, make a hole so you could drink the water. It's a real skill!  I also remember the first time I felt humidity.  I was lucky in that my parents took us somewhere every year. We went to Hawaii, Canada, Europe.  I blame my family for my travel bug!

Photo credit: Sandra Velasquez

Photo credit: Sandra Velasquez

Did you travel more to cities or "scenic" areas?  Did you like one more than the other?

Definitely more scenic areas. My mother is from the countryside of Mexico. In fact, where she is from no longer exists. It was washed away by water. I suppose I never really thought about it, but I have a leaning towards scenic country settings when I travel now.  I like to be in nature as much as possible. I'm going to Lombok this summer and can't wait.

Do you visit the same places over and over, or do you generally prefer exploring new places?

Always someplace new if possible.  I might repeat some places only to show them to my daughter. I have a list of places I want to take her now she's older and can enjoy and remember them.  Every year I try to go somewhere new.  I've been to Costa Rica, Australia, all over Latin America, and I'm looking forward to Indonesia and Lombok this summer! [And I] am dying to get to Vietnam and Thailand. Maybe next year....

Do you think that desire to visit someplace new if possible extends to your artistic endeavors -- music in particular?

I never thought of that either, but yes! I suppose my wanderlust extends through all of my life! It's not about getting bored so much as being curious and always growing, once I feel like I'm not growing anymore then I move on. This is why there hasn't been another Pistolera album for many years. I feel like I took that sound as far as I could g(r)o(w).  And I can't fake things. I've seen people who are "stuck" in their successful band churning out the one sound people want to hear from them for decades. I don't want that.  I need to create things that I want to create. Otherwise music becomes another day job.

Moona Luna busking

Moona Luna busking

What new sounds or adventures were you aiming for on your new album P A N O R A M A?

As someone who grew up in California, and by that I mean in car culture, I love me a good driving album. I really wrote the album and ordered the songs in order of taking a journey from one place to the next. I used my own memories of traveling extensively by bus through Central America as visual inspiration when writing. Each song is truly connected to an actual experience I had. I did a lot of traveling alone in Latin America, which allowed me to really blend in with whatever town I was in. Those solo adventures through Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador really shaped who I am. So to answer your question, I hope I am giving people the soundtrack to their own journey, whether they've taken it yet or not.

Photo credit: Sandra Velasquez

Photo credit: Sandra Velasquez

Are there any tracks that are more meaningful to you because they're associated with particular memories?

The first three tracks I associate with specific memories as well as tracks 6, 7 and 10.  It's not that the others don't have a visual for me - they do - but they are imagined...

The title track - "Panorama" - I have many memories that insprired this song. First, going to Tikal in Guatemala at dawn. Climbing the pyramids and seeing nothing but jungle on the horizon. The only sounds were of monkeys. It was pretty magical.

I also think of being on the bus (I was on the bus a lot) where you are winding through dense mountains and there is no civilization for as long as the eye can see.  Latin America is filled with tiny chapels at the tops of steep hills.  It's almost like an olympic sport climbing hundreds of stairs. But then once you do, you have an eagle eye view.

Note: I did all of these travels before the iPhone. so my pictures are with a [expletive] disposable camera (I never travel with expensive gear).

Those are lovely photos!  (Also: I think Instagram should add a "[expletive] disposable camera" filter.)

Track 2 - "Happiness" - this is basically is a "grass isn't greener" song. I love to travel, don't get me wrong, but I do feel that Americans often feel they need to go FAR away to "discover" new things/feelings/people, and actually there's alot right here! There are still pockets of New York that I haven't discovered! The Bronx is vast.  The song is not only about finding physical spaces, but also about just finding yourself in your own life.  Sometimes we do need go somewhere else and get lost to learn about ourselves. and sometimes we learn that those things were inside of us all along.

Photo credit: Sandra Velasquez

Photo credit: Sandra Velasquez

Track 3 - "Espejos" - I have lot of family in mexico still. I don't get to see them very much. It's almost a little overwhelming to have a big family in one place. because if you go there, you HAVE to see family.  [Anyway,] when I did go to Mexico with my family when I was younger it made an impression on me.  I saw where certain physical traits and even vocal tones came from. Isn't it a trip when you look at, say, your great uncle and you have their eyes or their shoulders? You know what I mean? It's quite intense to see how people that all come from the same lineage turn out. I have cousins that look JUST like my grandmother even though their mother does not.  This song ("Mirrors," in English) is all about how we see ourselves in each other.

In discussing "Happiness," you mention finding out things about yourself while traveling -- what have you found while traveling?

The reason I love traveling is because of how it puts me in my place in the world. This is if you are truly traveling, not vacationing. When you truly travel and engage with the community you become aware of all of the things you take for granted. I should also interject that I have mostly traveled in Latin America.  One might not have the same feeling after travelling in Scandanavia where health care is free!

P A N O R A M A album cover

P A N O R A M A album cover

Mostly what I have learned from traveling is how lucky I am, how many resources I have at my fingertips, and that I have a LOT to be grateful for.

In the end, what do you hope listeners take away from P A N O R A M A?

The album takeaway - I want it to be a soundtrack to your next adventure. maybe that's just a road trip three hours away, or maybe it across the pond. I love soundtracks, and if I can make one for someone else, that makes me feel like I've done my job.

Photo credit: Sandra Velasquez

Photo credit: Sandra Velasquez

Photo credits: Shervin Lainez (top), Signe Schloss (Moona Luna) Sandra Velasquez (all others)

Interview: Steve Denyes

Steve Denyes

Steve Denyes

One of the things I admire about musicians who've been musicians for awhile is just that -- they've been musicians for awhile.  It's difficult enough to have the same job for a number of years, but when that job is primarily one which generates creative products as an output, keeping things fresh over a long period of time is particularly difficult.

I Chew album cover

I Chew album cover

Which is one reason I wanted to talk with Steve Denyes of the band Hullabaloo.  Their brand new album I Chew features songs mostly written last year when the San Diego-based Denyes set himself the goal to write and record one song a day for nearly a month.  Anyone who wants to challenge himself that way has figured out how to keep things fresh and wants to try new things.

And indeed, when I suggested that instead of doing an interview over Skype to record it, rather than by phone or over e-mail, Denyes was game to sign himself up for Skype and tackle this interview in a slightly different manner.

So in just a shade under 30 minutes you can listen to his thoughts on the growth of his band, the origins of I Chew, and how surfing helps him be a musician.

Photo credit: Natalie Chiles

Who Gives a Hoot (2)? Bill Childs and Stephanie Mayers

Hootenanny 2: Back to Basics logo

Hootenanny 2: Back to Basics logo

Many years ago, way back in the wild and woolly kindie year of 2007, Bill Childs and Stephanie Mayers put together a little party in Brooklyn. They called it Hootenanny and, well, from a distance, it sounded like a blast.  Nothing but kids musicians playing their music for other kids musicians and other folks in the industry.  The party went on into the wee hours (like, the actual wee hours, not the wee hours that these musicians typically play).

The next year, Hootenanny became more officially known as Stink, then it became Stinkfest, then Kindiefest, and yadda yadda yadda.  Great times indeed, but the "conference" part with panels and badges and registration became a bigger part of the work, and while the "playing music for others part" never went away, the focus was not as much on that industry-only performance.

But Mayers (head of Mayers Consulting) and Childs (Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child) are getting the band back together, concert-speaking-wise, anyway, hosting Hootenanny 2: Back to Basics on Saturday, January 16.  It's going to be held at Jalopy in Brooklyn (the same place the first three gatherings were held) -- tickets available here -- and with the following lineup I can't imagine it'll be anything but a blast:

Rachel Loshak and Morgan Taylor (Gustafer Yellowgold)
Vered Ronen and Walter Martin
Michael & the Rockness Monsters and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo
Jazzy Ash and KB Whirly
Ashley Albert and Tim Kubart
Joanie Leeds and Dan Elliott (Pointed Man Band)
Danny Weinkauf (TMBG) and AudraRox
Sonia de los Santos and Brady Rymer
Shine & Dan Zanes
The Deedle Deedle Dees and Moona Luna
Elena Moon Park & The Pop Ups

So, yeah, folks who are industry-related who are going to be around NYC the weekend of the 16th, you should totally go to that -- it'll be a blast to see those people perform, and just talk to them.  (As in the old days, these are not shows for kids themselves...)

But I wanted to get a little more background from Mayers and Childs on their memories of the first go-round, and their inspiration and hopes for the new show.

Zooglobble: Do you have a favorite moment from the old Hootenanny/Stinkfest?

Stephanie Mayers: I think it was giggling and singing along to the Deedle Deedle Dees with Audra[Rox] while sipping champagne at like 1:00 am, more buzzed on the energy of what we had just done more than the champagne. What an energetic, surprising night it turned out to be.

Bill Childs: The utter ridiculousness of the first one -- which grew from Audra saying, "Hey, you should record the show when you're here in Brooklyn" to nearly two dozen bands playing 'til way past midnight -- was just a delight.  There have been a lot of great moments throughout the later events, but yeah, the surprise.

Stephanie Mayers with cardboard Bill Childs

Stephanie Mayers with cardboard Bill Childs

Who holds the Hoot record for most appearances? 

Bill: Gotta be a tie between the Deedle Deedle Dees and AudraRox, I'd think.

How did the idea for the collaborative theme of Hoot 2 come about? 

Stephanie: We were super excited to start bringing in as many people as we could but of course it’s just one night so time is limited. We started with just a couple pairings we thought would be fun and that we really wanted to see ourselves, then it just kind of snowballed into each set being a cool collaboration to maximize potential. 

Bill: Agreed, it was partially a practical idea to fit in more shows, but then it developed into being thematic.  One of the things that I'm proudest of in the scene, and our (small) part in it, has been the very cool collaborations that have come out of it.

How did the specific collaborations come about? Your suggestions, theirs, or some combination thereof? 

Stephanie: Mostly it was us, but of course we were open to suggestions from the artists. It was super fun and really indulgent for us playing matchmaker, getting to set up who we wanted to see blended together. I felt like a little Yenta.

What do you hope the attendees remember about Hoot 2 after it’s over?

Stephanie: I hope everyone is reminded that we are sharing this special, small space in our very niche genre and that while everyone gets bogged down trying working so hard to make things happen for themselves, that banding together once in a while can be a really great thing and gobs of fun.

Bill: The scene is better when the scene is together -- and it's strongest when everyone's having fun.