>>>>>> How do you get in the right head-space to perform? do you have a ritual at this point? Alcohol… kidding. I try not to over think it, because it’s when I do that it causes me to second guess things. I have so much to think about while I perform – between playing guitar, singing, pedals, live looping etc. It’s hard to not get in my head.
>>>>> Most musician’s early influences are in some way tied to family in some way, is that true for you too? Absolutely. Both of my parents are very musical; they both sing and play piano and organ. I grew up in the church so there was a strong emphasis on hymns and psalms and singing in general. I was also in a handbell choir in middle school! The choirs taught me about music theory and performing with others in time and in dynamic.
>>>>> As kids, many creative types often flounder a bit until they find their muse as it were; was this true for you at all? I’m still floundering in many ways. There was, however, a definite switch for me during adolescence where music naturally became central to me over any of the other activities I was involved in. It wasn’t until my twenties when I decided to pursue music fully, and that helped me feel a lot of fulfillment. I had spent my college years trying to figure out how I could play music instead of what I was doing.
>>>>> What singers did you try to emulate when you first started singing / writing / playing and what was the first tune you learned to play and sing on guitar comfortably enough to play for others? I never consciously tried to emulate anyone while singing or writing or playing. When I first got a guitar- around ten years old or so- it was a vehicle for me to write songs. I taught myself how to play by looking up guitar tabs to songs I knew online. I’m really not sure what the first tune was that I played and sang in front of others, but I think one of the first times I played in front of others was at an open mic that I asked my mom to take me to because I wasn’t old enough to drive yet. I remember being pretty terrified but excited because I always knew while writing that I wanted to share too.
>>>>> What was your first album purchase and concert viewing respectively and how do you think they may inform your music or general approach today? My first album purchase was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” by the Beatles. So epic! I bought it on cassette, and I would listen to “A Day in the Life” over and over again. It’s interesting how that’s two different songs melded together. I’ve done the same thing in my writing many times.
>>>>> Some who hear Dead Horses may find the songwriting, beyond folk, as decidedly southern: where does being from the Midwest & Milwaukee figure in to that mix you think? I think it might be related to how I grew up listening to old gospel hymns.
>>>>> How does the songwriting process work for you and Dead Horses; has it evolved or do you have a tried and true formula at this point? No real formula per se. I usually have the skeletons (or more) to songs and I bring them to Dan and we work on them together. It’s always evolving and I welcome that.
>>>>> How do you get in the right mindset pre-show or is that not a concern for you day to day? Funny you should ask, as I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. It’s so important to be flexible because you never know what you’re going to have to work with from show to show or festival. Maybe you’ll have a quiet place to warm up in, maybe you won’t. A couple of weeks ago we drove five hours to a festival, got out of the van and immediately took a golf cart to do a session on a porch, and then we rode back to our stage where we played a full set
I am curious about how it might help to spend time getting in touch with body before a set- meditating, stretching, breathing. Some of the best advice given to me were “Use your nerves.” I really appreciate the nerves I get before most shows, because they serve as a source of energy and a tangible recognition by my body of what’s about to take place.
>>>>> The ‘Critically Acclaimed Album’ seems to remain the spark point in the Americana scene for artists looking to make it to bigger stages: How do you manage / ignore the pressure to ‘one-up’ your prior release? I feel that I’m at the beginning of my career and that there are many records to come. I think there will be ups and downs in how people perceive our work and also how I will feel about it. I think it’s great that anyone is paying attention to the writing because it’s one of the most fun parts for me.
>>>>> Could you ever see yourself doing a big Nashwood-type presentation were you to headline the Sheds soon? Is that a fear as you’re name grows; preserving what you have without compromise to keep climbing? I do definitely have a strong attachment to this desire to stay “authentic.” I have been asking myself what that really means, as it has caused me some inner conflict. I think you have to do your best; decisions are often not black and white. Things that we hang onto with our whole being are often ego-based, but a level of integrity is so important- especially in this field.
>>>>> You encounter a lot of great young, new artists on the road: when you meet those you really believe in, do you engage them? and what sort of advice do they tend to seek form you? Definitely! If I can. Today someone was asking me about how to get rolling with music. He’s a great player but doesn’t play out ever. I told him it’s a community and you’ve got to get involved! Find some people you want to play with who are playing music you’re interested in.
——— How did you originally get the rock & roll bug? What music did you hear in the house growing up? My Dad listened to Bluegrass & Country. The Statler Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Johnny Cash, Alabama, Oak Ridge Boys. Watched Hee Haw! My Brother listened to Kiss, ELO, BTO, Foghat, Peter Frampton.
———— What was the first record you ever bought and how does it grab you today? Boston, Don’t Look Back. Still love it but it is considered Classic Rock now.
———- Since you don’t actually play an instrument or sing (outside of the beer tent or car), how do you explain your love affair with ‘Outlaw Country’ to new friends? Just love Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr., Willie Nelson style more than ever because Nashville has always dissed them thus become the “Outlaw” term. Today, Nashville created Pop Country thanks to Scott Borchetta and changed Country music. You either love Pop Country or hate it. The hatters love Outlaw Country. I really love the new Outlaw Country artists Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Cody Jinks, Jamey Johnson etc.
——— Who is on your shipwrecked island playlist today? Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Marcus King, Billy Strings, Government Mule, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver.
——— Was your first concert experience really Alabama at Buck Lake Ranch? Yes, I went with my Family in 1982. I remember every moment so well and even still have pictures from my photo album.
———– You’ve spent a good deal of time & love now revamping Buck Lake Ranch, once the ‘Nashville of The North’. What color can you share on the lay of the land for Midwest promoters in 2018? Cut throat more than ever. People just do not realize the cost to put on a show these days. There are a couple big promoters who keep driving the costs up to try and keep small guys out. They buy massively which keeps their costs down.
———– You cut your teeth as promoter of the highly successful, annual BBQ, Blues & Bluegrass Festival in St. Joseph MI over the last 5 or so years, how does that experience inform your belief in and approach to the revival of Buck Lake? Well as any promoter knows, it takes 3 years to build something out and become profitable. We are so excited for Buck Lake Ranch because of the Rich music history it already has. It has been awhile since Buck Lake has had anything going on so 2018 is going to be the “ Come Back” year. We have over 75 local, Regional & touring bands booked for the season. We have created our “Jammin in the Bowl” Series to be held every Saturday from Memorial Day to Labor Day. We have Blessing of the Bikes & Abate biker rides to The Ranch. We created the Americana Music & Arts Festival & many more events to come.
————- What new artists are you keeping an on eye for future festival plays who you’d love o see at Buck Lake someday soon? First and foremost, Jake Kershaw. The kid is another amazing Blues artists who will be on everyone’s radar real soon. As you know, I have been following Marcus King to stardom and Jake is right behind him. Jake has a new CD “Piece of my Mind”, everyone should go buy! Also, a young lady Erin Coburn who also has a new CD “Queen of Nothing”. These are two very amazing young artists who you will see on the legendary Buck Lake Ranch Bowl Stage real soon.
———— If you could book a dream 3 band bill, to be broadcast worldwide, dead or alive, who would be on the bill and what’s the ‘theme’ as you see it? Well right now it would start with the Eagles. I am a huge Glenn Frey fan God rest his soul, but I just am also a huge Vince Gill fan and I love the current sound. Next would be Stevie Ray Vaughn, a man who had a relatively short career in just 7 years but made a massive impact on musicians worldwide. Third would be Hank Williams Sr. To most it may seem like a strange lineup but it goes with my love for versatility. As a promoter & music fanatic, I love many styles of music. So I love to bring in different styles from Blues, Classic Rock, Southern Rock, Outlaw Country to Indie, Progressive & Traditional Bluegrass, Folk & Jazz.
————– If you ever did become a musical artists, what would you call yourself and what song do you cover your first time on the Grammys? That is a tough question to answer. Music is written about life experiences, tragedies, heart breaks, failures, successes and so on. So thinking along those lines, I would name my band Gullible. I have had a life full of challenges because I was over trusting, deceived, believed if someone gave me their word they would stand up to it. Not so anymore, you can trust no one except for a few closest to you. As for a song, Chris Stapleton is my favorite song writer. I would sing “Tennessee Whiskey” on the Grammys. Also, “Nobody to Blame” by Chris as well.
——- Duo musical couples seem to be rarer and rarer these days, was the potential to work together on music part of what brought you two together?
Eddy: The first night we met was at a singer/songwriter open mic in Wrigleyville. Jen was expecting to meet a friend. That friend never showed and I eventually offered her my guitar so that she could perform after she noticed me performing and turning her way from two feet away over and over. After some good conversation, I offered her a ride to the train station downtown since I lived close to there. I mentioned that we should make some music together sometime and she gave me her MySpace card. The rest is history.
Jen: Strictly…at 1st J Eddy also possessed the alluring quality of a man of culture. I wanted 2 things in a man that were not easy to find: 1.) Finding a rock star to do music with 2.) Marrying the musical rock star
—————- Your personal musical influences seem as incongruent from one another as possible yet they find a comfortable balance with The New Zeitgeist, did it take time to develop its cohesion or was it immediate?
Jen: Ha, really? There was immediate chemistry, yet as we explored places we had never been between his twangy-blusterous grit and my tailored velvet, our songwriting individually wandered untested roads, and our sound became more intimately entwined. I suppose what helped our unlikely and risky launch is the somewhat later exploration in my 20’s of my personal music taste and, therefore, probably the largest genre evolution out of the two of us. For me, mostly Church Gospel songs to uh, rap and punk in middle school, then indie folk, and finally, what we identify loosely as roots/Americana now. I was definitely at a point in my music where I wasn’t being challenged creatively and feeling a musically plateau as a solo artist just before we met.
Eddy: Jen had such a remarkable natural ability to sing amazing harmonies. When we met, I was asking her to accompany me on my old material and she made it ten times better! She was working on her sound at the time and wasn’t sure she wanted to abandon that and start a new band. We started the first album in the summer of 2103 and released it in December of 2014. That was The New Zeitgeist. We met as acoustic artists but she had encouraged me to return to playing electric guitar and, I couldn’t have been happier getting back to my rock roots on our second album which was released in summer of 2017.
————— How does the writing process work for you? does it vary song to song?
Jen: I’m really great at listening for arrangement and structure (Evaluating Eddy’s songs), but Eddy’s also greatly improved the musical riffs of my songs. I’m currently trying to expand my writing process beyond waiting for the inspiration of that flaky muse, but traditionally it’s very lyrically dominant for me and the melody drives the song. The voice creates the music and the instrument, many times comes later. Since my main instrument is my voice, I feel if you have a strong melody you have a strong song. We’re also opening up our songwriting experience to collaboration in smaller ways, but not necessarily co-writing. We’re both very dominant songwriters and I think it’s an intimate and personal experience for each of us.
Eddy: I am not at all disciplined as a songwriter. I listen for the music in my head. Either I will find a hook or a riff that I like, or stumble across one while practicing guitar. It may be a thought or an idea. I think choruses are meant to connect with. If I find one, then I try to write a song around it. I do enjoy using a word processor, using word documents to create a poetic structure, and then filling it in around the hook. I still will write down a phrase on a piece of paper if it comes to me. When I was at NIU in the late 80’s, I had the privilege of attending a poetry workshop with the legendary Gwendolyn Brooks. I read a song of mine to her and she responded with something I have taken to heart until this day. ‘Revise, revise, revise.’ I try to practice that.
————— Is there a tune of yours that you feel is the quintessential representation of who and what you are?
Jen: Definitely “Desert Rose,” since it’s the most original on lyrics and music, and a classic sappy love tune. I never wrote a personally real or convincing love song before that, and also pushed myself to write outside my genre zone of comfort—an ode to classic country.
Eddy: Of my songs on our recent album, “Myths and Mortals”, I have a difficult time choosing one. I think it has to be “Lack of Linear Thought”. It is my 60’s dream pop song. The cast of characters playing on this track includes Alton Smith on the Farfisa, whom I think takes it over the top! I was playing though a sweet little vintage Supro amp on most of the album and made the most of it on this track, too!
—————- The New Zeitgeist has a lot in common with the late 60’s folk movement in terms of lyrics and messaging: were your parents hippies? What did you grow up listening to in the house?
Jen: My Dad was definitely a “Jesus Hippie”! Definitely no for my mom! They were opposites musically as he would have the oldies playing in the car and he was especially a lover of classic folk like Dylan while my Mom preferred Italian opera.
Eddy: My dad was definitely not a hippie, but he did appreciate the pop music of the 60’s era. His favorite groups were The Everly Brothers, The Righteous Brothers, The Ventures, and The Animals. He would say that once The Beatles went to see the Maharishi they became too “out there” for him. I remember my parents having Elton John’s Greatest Hits, Jim Croce, and the red and blue vinyl Beatles Greatest Hits. The blue album, which included “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, was my favorite, of course! My mom and dad listened to the radio with us a lot throughout the 70’s and the 80’s. My mom wasn’t a hippie, either. She liked to dance to good music and we would watch American Bandstand. Her favorites included Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. On a further note, my grandfather was an accomplished accordionist and he performed with my father on drums at VFW halls around the SW suburbs. We would hear them practice often and that would include hearing a lot of polkas and waltzes. I loved it! Hearing that made me want to make music, too!
—————- Would you guys ever consider expanding the presentation to include a full band and, if so, what would be your instrumentation wish list?
Jen: Oh, yes! The recent album Myths and Mortals (2017) was the real creative impetus for our dream instrumentation at every turn. The opportunity to work with some really great Chicago musicians, including Gerald Dowd (drums), John Abbey (bass), Alton Smith (organ), Nora Barton (cello), and Austin pedal steel extraordinaire Lloyd Maines, strengthened us to be tighter musicians and more intimately entwined as a duo. A lot of those songs inspired Pedal Steel, Bass, and Percussion to be added to our duo’s mandolin, acoustic, and electric, but I can see also stripping it down to an even more simple roots package with an upright, chains/rattles, and dobro.
Eddy: For me, there is nothing like playing in a great band situation. Jen was very conscious of the different sounds she wanted when planning ‘Myths and Mortals,’ and those included a rhythm section. She insisted on the pedal steel and after hearing the initial takes in the studio, I was convinced of almost every idea she had. Playing with the truly great musicians that performed on “Myths and Mortals” was a dream come true and I would wish to bring them together again in the future if possible.
——————— What were the first 3 albums (for each of you) you purchased as a kid? Which is the best?
Jen: I probably didn’t purchase my own music until I was 12. My very 1st, ahem, (cassette!) was The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” with the cartoon cover…I mean, hey, I grew up in Florida. J Then to CD’s, Grammatical Revolution (1999) by Christian hip hop group named Grits, and definitely my most memorable album, The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek (2001) from punk-rock band Reliant K, which is very worn and whose several albums really motivated my learning of guitar chords.
Eddy: This has been challenging to remember. My parents were in the habit of occasionally purchasing a new album. I remember receiving as a gift the album ‘Double Vision’ by Foreigner in what must have been the Christmas of ’78. In the following year with my own money for the first time, I must have wanted to buy a Kiss record, but my parents “encouraged” me to buy something else first, so I bought the first Foreigner album and then the Ace Frehley solo album! I think the third album I bought was ‘Double Platinum’.
——————– What do you guys like to listen to together these days if you are going to pop on an ‘album’?
Jen: Hmmm…it’s not that easy! It depends on mood, flexibility, and activity—like driving, or…other things! I think Zep has done us no harm, some Johnny Cash, some Neil Young, or even U2, but usually it’s nothing newer than the 80s or 90s. J I’m embarrassed to admit how much we just listen to our album!
Eddy: In the car, Zep is our go to, or 93.1 WXRT. At home, it’s U2.
—————- What’s the best thing about Chicago and ‘our scene’?
Jen: I’ve found that it’s sometimes the less appearance-driven and smaller profile neighborhood dives that have the strongest music influence because they operate more at a community grassroots level and are not caught up with ticket sales or official advertisement. While we greatly respect some of the finest names in Chicago’s music scene, some of the best recent times for us have been the meaningful connections we make up-close like Lizard Lounge’s 2017 Ugly Sweater Party singing ‘Silent Night’ to be followed by an outstanding woman just from Ireland jumping on stage to belt a cappella a traditional tearjerker.
Eddy: I really enjoy all the different little bars and the different music scenes at each one, especially those places that haven’t changed much since the 90’s or at which no more that ten people regularly attend! Also, the Old Town School of Folk Music and the singer/songwriter scene there has been really important for us, and we really appreciate all the great people and musicians that we’ve had the pleasure to get to know there. We attend a lot of shows that the people we’ve met at the Old Town perform.
A new show bubbles up in which musical duo couples compete for the affection of millions of young Americans. In the finals, you are forced to dress up like and perform a couple classic couple duo number by Donnie & Marie, Captain & Tennille, Sonny & Cher, Paul & Linda McCartney, John & Yoko, Stevie & Lindsey, Ike & Tina or any other of your choice, what songs do you chose and which do you think you could pull off best?
Jen: That sounds like loads of fun…well, my 1st instinct is to be our real-life heroic couple, Piggy and Kermit. However, there’s a history behind the song “I’ve Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher being played at a party in our pre-dating hangouts which really sparked the idea of getting romantically involved with Eddy. We also walked up the aisle to that song. J
Eddy: It was at my long-time buddy Jeff’s birthday party singing karaoke in the summer of 2011 at which Jen and I sang “I’ve Got You Babe”. I think that would be the one!
—– What were your favorite bands in high school and how do you rank them today? I was into The Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, David Bromberg, Poco. New Riders of the Purple Sage in high school, but when I would listen to The Allmans I would say “Who is this Robert Johnson?”, and look him up. I was heading towards roots music as a teenager. When The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” it had a major impact on me and my friends. That is how we discovered Doc Watson, Vassar Clements, and Merle Travis. Doc became my sign post to all that followed. He had such great taste and style. From blues, bluegrass, swing, Doc had it all. Then Garcia, Grisman and Vassar released Old and in the Way, which also led us towards Bluegrass. New York radio had great non-commercial radio that featured bluegrass, Irish, jazz and blues. That was my education.
—– You started out as a drummer – what’s your first recollection of the mandolin and when/how/why did you pick it up? I started playing mandolin because there was one in my house. My Dad played violin and mandolin (all by ear). Mandolin seemed like a good idea because everyone played guitar.
I played drums from 4th grade through high school.
—– What do playing drums and playing Mando have in common for you? I think it helps inform my mandolin playing because mando is percussive and plays on 2 and 4 in bluegrass.
—– Did you take Mando lessons or are you self-taught? I taught myself mandolin at first, but eventually studied with Barry Mitterhoff. (Skyline, Hot Tuna). I still study and take lessons from various people via skype.
—– I assume there are go-to guys that Mandolin players hopes to emulate – who were they for you initially and who are you in to today? To discuss influences, any bluegrass mandolin player must mention Bill Monroe. I love Sam Bush, David Grisman, Doyle Lawson, Ricky Skaggs, Jethro Burns and the list goes on. Although I am sure I am influenced by many people, I don’t think I emulate anyone because mostly I learn from other instruments, like guitar (Django) fiddle and even piano or horns. I have recently become obsessed with the music of Django Reinhardt sometimes called Gypsy Jazz. I released a CD called Mandology and lead a band of the same name.
—– What is your Mando of choice and how did you settle on that as your ‘ace’ of choice? I play an instrument made for me by the great builder A. Lawrence Smart. It is modeled after an F-5 Gibson.
—– How did Blue Plate Special come together and how would you describe the bands dynamics on stage, and off? Blue Plate Special started in 2001 after Tom Wise (Bass) and I were playing together for a bit. After kicking around a few band configurations, Tom’s wife Jay Friedman began playing fiddle and man can she sing! (Who Knew?) The three of us started learning some tunes and we all began to write. We added some musicians who have come and gone. Fortunately, about 7 or 8 years ago, we hooked up with some amazing young musicians James Hempfling (guitar) and Dan Whitener (banjo).
At this point we are all best friends.
—— Do you guys feel you part of the Nu-Grass movement or are you more traditional? I wouldn’t say Blue Plate Special is a traditional bluegrass band. Bluegrass is an ever evolving and growing genre with some bands keeping it really traditional and others taking liberties. This has been true now for decades. I feel like we do what feels right, what the song tells us to do. Sometimes that means keeping it traditional, sometimes not. We play swing, blues and some rock covers. What ever feels like fun and sounds good. What characterizes our band I think, are the arraignments. I really don’t like to cover a tune without making it our own. We work very hard to find a sound for each song often with three part harmony.
—— How does the writing process work in BPS? When someone comes in with an original song idea, we arrange very carefully. It is really fun to see a song evolve in that fashion. When I write a tune, I sometimes hear the music almost fully formed. Maybe with a word or two or a concept. The lyrics usually follow.
—– Blue Plate Special are to perform at the CMAs in the ‘honorable mention; Bluegrass” category, what tune do you guys do, what do you wear, and how would the choreography work? If we were to perform at the CMAs we would dress up in our finest clothes(I would have to go shopping) and try to smile a lot.
—- How did you get hooked on rock & roll as a kid? Well, I wasn’t into Rock and Roll I was into Jazz (as my father wanted). I wanted a drum set and he bought me one with conditions that I learned how to play jazz for a couple of years. Then on one Christmas I was like 15 or 16 he bought me Led Zeppelin 4 and Rush’s “All the Worlds a stage”...changed me forever!
—- Who were your top few musical heroes as a kid and why? Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, John Bonham, Neil Peart, Steve Gadd, Jeff Porcaro, Steve Smith and Stuart Copeland. Because they all played as who they truly are and offered something in drumming to me that I needed and wanted.
—- What was the first record you ever picked up and does it make the playlist still today? Benny Goodman Live in Belgium and yes it would because of sing, sing, sing. (It could be a killer rock song today)
—- Who is your favorite drummer and what is it about their that fascinates you so? I don’t have a pure favorite drummer because they all offer something. But if I had to pick 2 I would choose Bonham and Gadd.
—- What are your three favorite rock drum tracks of all-time? Rush 2112 (The whole thing), Steely Dan, Aja and Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain”.
— It’s often said that no two drummer are alike — do you believe one drummer can duplicate another’s feel or parts perfectly without technology? No and Technology would make it worse
—- If you got the call tomorrow, what band could you sit in most comfortably with without freaking out too much? I would freak because my chops are not perfect because I have to work for a living. But once I had those screaming I could and would love to play for Seal and/or Peter Gabriel…Possibly Adelle!
—- You’re bit of a drum collector and aficionado — does the brand and year really make that much of difference once you get past materials used etc.. ? I don’t know, for me it is just the sound and feel of the kit. I have many kits from many makers. I LOVE mid-60’s Rogers and Late-60’s / Early-70’s Ludwig!
—- What part of your personality do you think comes through / translates best / helps in your role as a Financial Advisor? Creativity, Technicality and Empathy.
—- You are not sure if you are dreaming but suddenly you are thrown in to a heavenly Moby Dick drum jam with Bonzo and Mooney, a third kit awaits you. How do you approach the sudden rush to join the fray and hold your ground? I see my Craviotto “Big Drum” kit….I honor the masters and hold my ground just fine because …I am prepared and I can play.
———– What role did music play in your upbringing in the Diné tradition? In the Diné language (Diné Bizaad) Hataałii means both “singer” and “doctor”. Also, in our language Sodizin means both “song” and “prayer.” So in my upbringing, music was all about deep intention to make the world a better place. Music was seen as a healer and singers were viewed as doctors. I was born into a world of struggle, as Native Americans continue to live in post-war conditions after the Native American holocaust. There’s a lot of work to do to improve our communities. I was raised by strong people to live my life deliberately and to view every one of my creations as an opportunity to heal my people, all people.
———– Were you discouraged at all from getting into American pop music and it’s culture as kid? I was never discouraged from this. In fact, society encouraged me to listen to this because it was “cool” and it was the only thing on local radio stations. I drank the Kool-aid for a lot of years and went along with the programming of American children. There was a time though, around age 10, when I actually stopped drinking soda and I stopped listening to mainstream music. I started to see that mainstream music often times was part of the problem of keeping the public ignorant and distracted.
———– What artists / songs got through to you early on and how did their music, vibe and lyrics influence you and your outlook on your place in the world? The Beatles were a heavy influence growing up. My father was born in 1954 so he brought a lot of his music from the 60s and 70s into my life. When I picked up the guitar, the first songs I started to learn were Beatles songs and I think that continues to influence my song structures today. Other influences from all different genres included System of a Down, Lauryn Hill, Shania Twain (I know… funny right?), Blackalicious, Rage Against the Machine, India.Arie, The Glitch Mob, Led Zeppelin, Ulali and others. These artists showed me that music is a powerful launchpad for bringing joy, inspiration, hope, education and unification to the oppressed. None of these artists were Native American because it seemed at the time there weren’t a lot of Native American role models in the music world for me. There was Buffy Saint Marie but I never really got into her music. Myself and a number of others are trying very hard to generate a new genre of Indigenous music that inspires the youth.
—————— You have a track record for winning poetry jams at a statewide, and nationwide level, when did music become an extension of your drive to share your message? I was always a writer. I remember reading poetry in public places as early as 4th grade. I remember winning writing competitions that early as well, for whatever that’s worth. When I stumbled upon spoken word at age 14, I was an instant fanatic. I travelled all of the world in my teens performing spoken word. I also started picking up the guitar in earnest at that point. So my poetry and my music development started around the same age, but I was slower to become a decent musician, whereas writing and speaking came more naturally. I didn’t feel confident in my music enough until very recently, perhaps five years ago, to really include it in my public performances. But since then, it has come to be appreciated as much as my poetry is.
—————— What was your musical life like while at Stanford? I think that a lot of the drug addiction and sexual abuse I was experiencing in high school and at Stanford muted my musical confidence. I didn’t feel worthy as a woman to do much of anything because I felt like a bad person. I didn’t realize that just because bad things were happening to me, didn’t mean I myself was bad. But because of that, I was very creatively stunted for a long time. It wasn’t until my junior year of Stanford that I started to heal from the rape, get sober and pick up my guitar again. At that point the songs started flowing through me all the time. I didn’t feel comfortable releasing them at that point, but now I do!
———— How does the song writing process work for you and what does it take for you to feel a song is finished and ready to be performed or recorded? Everything is in prayer. Like my ancestors, I treat life like a ceremony. So first thing I do, unless I’m being rushed and careless, is I pray. Maybe go outside and offer some corn pollen to the earth and ask her to give me some good words. One of my mentors has a prayer that he says every morning: “May you help me help at least one person today.” That is a very beautiful prayer to me. So I pray that with each song it can help at least one person. I don’t have a real unreachable standard for when a song is finished. I try to be laid back and allow a song to go out even if it’s not perfect. I used to do that and I would never publish anything because it wasn’t flawless. Now I kind of rest in my imperfection and do my best and be happy with that. I’m often pleasantly surprised with what “my best” ends up being.
————- In a way what you’re doing harkens back to the late 60’s folk rock peace movement – do you feel any affinity with those artists and their music today? I feel very connected to this movement, even though there aren’t a lot of highly visible Native American’s in that movement. I feel like even though it was mainly a White movement, it still had some very good messages and was trying hard to generate a new way of seeing things. I pray to further that movement by grounding it in Indigenous rights. I feel that before this country can have peace it must contend with its “original sin”: the fact that this country is founded on the genocide of Indigenous Peoples. Until we give lands back to what little Native people are left, and until we make serious efforts to uplift these communities on their terms, then we will always be a farce of justice.
—————– What do you do to get in the right head space before playing (or speaking) to an audience? Do you have a day-of-show ritual? Again, prayer is the first thing I do. One of our old songs says, “Great Mystery, first I pray to you. Because of this, I will live well with my people.” This song reminds me that prayer is the first step to any process. I used to say a little mantra I’d say to myself before stepping in front of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. I would say, “I am always confident, calm, humble and strong before I speak to the people because I know I carry a message of truth, love, healing and peace.” I would say that all the time. But now I think it’s woven into my being so it is understood without being spoken.
—————– How was your experience last year at the Newport Folk Festival? I loved being in Newport and not just for the seafood! I remember my set was sandwiched between a lot of amazing musicians on one of the side stages. I was the only woman in that section, the only person of color and definitely the only person who identified as Native American. So in many ways I was an anomaly. A lot of people in the audience were not expecting to hear an Indigenous activist/musician. They were overwhelmingly grateful for the set I brought and bought a lot of albums, the proceeds of which I donated to Lakota youth projects. These audiences often don’t know what to make of me, but they are always pretty moved by it and describe my set as a cathartic process.
————– You are asked to perform a song on The Grammy’s to further ‘First Nation’s’ causes / pride. You are to be allowed a brief introductory sentence or two and then to play a cover song of your choosing — what do you say to and play for America?
First of all, I should say, I try to refer to this land as “Turtle Island” and not as “America.” Because that is the original name given to this continent by its original peoples. But, I hope this day comes, not for the sake of my fame but to bring my people’s message to those who might not hear it otherwise. If I were in that position, I would say, “My people are busy working to revive languages and land stewardship techniques that were brutally destroyed by the processes of Manifest Destiny. We can no longer destroy what we do not understand. The systems of my people are not savage, but incredibly sophisticated and have the ability to bring solutions now, to a world in crisis.” And then I would sing an old song of my people, a song of overcoming called, “Shi Nishaa.” This song is the song that the elders sang when they saw their southern sacred mountain for the first time in four years. They didn’t see it for so long because they were being held in a concentration camp by the US military from 1864-1868. It is a song of joy and resilience. Not even the US military can stamp out this medicine. We are here to bring it to everyone, even those who tried to wipe us from the face of the earth. This is the unconditional love that my elders told me was the deepest medicine. – LYLA JUNE