Live Review: Amanda White at ONCE Somerville

Amanda White at ONCE Somerville

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Amanda White

ONCE Somerville, Somerville, MA

April 15, 2019

I had intended to get out to an Amanda White show for a while now, and this was a Monday night when my schedule fell into place, and the start time was early enough that it didn’t impede getting home at a reasonable hour; I love early shows on work nights. So I ventured out to this gig, even though it meant traveling to the severely-parking-impaired town of Somerville. (I promise I’ll try to avoid a Somerville parking rant in this review. Mostly.)

Amanda White at ONCE Somerville

photo by Geoff Wilbur

I arrived in time for Amanda’s set. Backed by a talented band, she took the stage by storm. Amanda’s style is very old-school punk. Raw but tuneful music with a penchant for random profanity. But it extends well beyond that, as you can hear prog influences, while some songs feature Amanda’s venture into soaring, operatic vocal run that few can equal. If you know anything about my musical recommendations, you’ll know they’re either for well-performed pure musical styles or, more often, those with obvious external influences from a number of often-surprising other sources. You know, that plus great vocals and songwriting. Indeed, my punk rock recommendations are rare, but they are all must-listens.

Amanda White at ONCE Somerville

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The evening mostly featured songs from Amanda White’s latest CD, Kittens Give Zero Fucks. Prior to this show, I had only listened to the album online a couple of times. Though I’m more familiar with the music now, I’ll stick to my notes from the evening for this review. There’s a more detailed album review coming sometime in the future.

Amanda and her band opened the set with, according to my notes, “that soaring, moaning song.” Gotta be disc-opener “Last to Bite.” Next up was “Fuckall Rockstar,” delivered live in its full punk rock glory, much more distorted than on the recording. Exceptionally crunchy axework and an engaging driving rhythm provided the support, while the soaring vocals were opera meets Broadway meets punk. That vocal blend – one Amanda’s uniquely capable of achieving – is a recurring theme.

Energetic rocker “Whackadoodle World” (the “oh oh oh oh oh oh oh” song, per my notes) brought a bit more straightforward rocking energy to the set. Then catchy “Ur Wife,” with its hypnotic rhythm, followed.

Amanda White at ONCE Somerville

photo by Geoff Wilbur

After a soaring fifth song (“Dark Art”), Amanda reached back to her first disc, Toyshop, for “Monica’s Getting Her Tits Done,” a tune musically catchy largely due to the recurring rhythm guitar hook.

The evening’s seventh track (noted simply as “rawks!!!”) was followed by the evening’s power ballad, “Someone’s Watching Over Me,” a song that showcases vocal versatility while still being haunting and dark.

Speaking of haunting and dark – and throw in a healthy dose of foreboding – and you’re talking about the first few minutes of “Fade” before guitar and drums help the song build to a scream. With its power shifts and movements, there was a bit of a Broadway flavor to the evening’s performance of “Fade.”

And, to close our the set Amanda closed with soaring, symphonic prog-metal “Adora.” And what better set-ender. Though punk-rock attitude permeates the performance – a pure New York-style punk rock double-bill with Bad Mary would be an unforgettable event – Amanda’s singing and songwriting versatility are what sets her apart. And she and her band rocked this particular Somerville evening. Hard. Raw. And powerfully.

Allison & Moon

Allison & Moon; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Evening’s Other Bands

The opening and closing acts of the evening were also worth catching, even though I kind-of didn’t. Evening openers The James Rocket caught my ear in my pre-show listening, but my attendance at its set fell victim to the “circling Somerville looking for parking” portion of the evening; I arrived in time to catch the last few seconds of the group’s final song. The closing set by Allison & Moon was a treat, or at least it was for as long as I stayed, but I only caught a few songs and took no notes, so I’ll have to catch them again one of these days.

Amanda White at ONCE Somerville

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Looking Ahead

Be sure to check Amanda White’s Facebook page for future gigs. At the moment, the only one listed is a February 8, 2020 show at Connolly’s in New York. The evening’s closing band, Allison & Moon, next plays on December 11th at O’Brien’s Pub in Allston, MA.

EP Review: Hobo Chang – Clockwork Monster

Hobo Chang

photo by Rob Watts; photo courtesy of Hobo Chang

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

EP Review of Hobo Chang: Clockwork Monster

Hobo Chang, a band from North East Essex in the UK, are releasing a new EP on the 29th November. When I reviewed their previous album, Beast in 2017, I summed it up as a “hypnotic and swirling sonic landscape with a vaguely disturbing mood.”

This new EP continues in the same vein. Apocalyptic, bedsit rock with a heavy dark melancholy hanging over it, like a psychedelic, indie shroud.

Hobo Chang - Clockwork Monster

image courtesy of Hobo Chang

The songs, “Clockwork Monster,” “Nightcrawler,” “Borrowed Time,” and “Where is Your God Now,” are four tracks of intense, moody prog rock in the trademark style you would expect from the band.

No one song stands taller than another, instead they all co-exist, increasing in their dark mass, like the gravitational pull of a black hole.

If you are a fan of Hobo Chang and the music they produce then you will be extremely happy to once again be immersed in the darkness of this new music which carries all their signature, experimental, musical hallmarks.

Keep up to date with the band on social media or on their website: Facebook @hobochang; www.hobochang.co.uk; hobochang.bandcamp.com

Album Review: Norwood – Lizzy White Doesn’t Give a Fuck

Norwood band photo

photo courtesy of Norwood

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Norwood: Lizzy White Doesn’t Give a Fuck

Norwood album cover

image courtesy of Norwood

Norwood’s new album, Lizzy White Doesn’t Give A Fuck, is the follow up to their 2016 album Notes to My Blood. It finds the band once again presenting fast, wordy, personally observational and quirky songs. If you haven’t heard them before and need a reference, then think indie REM meets They Might Be Giants.

Enjoyably put together with an underlying acoustic vibe enhanced by appropriately layered instrumentation. Whether it’s the violin that bows its way throughout the album or the brass on songs like “Against the Grain,” it all adds to the uplifting, unique, joyous feel of the album.

Norwood band photo

photo courtesy of Norwood

Don’t be fooled, though. On the surface it all sounds upbeat and fun, and this bright and breezy feel could easily be more than enough reason to enjoy the album. But listen harder and you can dig down to discover more of what is going on in the twisting and turning of the lyrics. The songs’ themes are refreshingly original and dripping with enough enigmatic quandary to make you really think, which is very appealing and rewarding in an often trite and cliched musical world.

Norwood band photo

photo courtesy of Norwood

If this album is your starting point for this band, then it is a great one for starters, but I would also recommend you go and discover their previous album, Notes to my Blood, as the two complement each other like cheeky, wry, indie, musical bookends.

The band have a gig coming up in Bellmore, NY on November 5th at KJ Farrell’s Bar and Grill, 242 Pettit Ave., from 7:30pm. You can find this information on the “Upcoming Shows” page of the band’s website.

Engage with the band on social media: https://www.facebook.com/norwoodtunes/ and https://www.instagram.com/norwoodband/.

Interview with Claudio Simonetti and Live Review of Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin at the Crofoot Ballroom

photo by Larry Fritzley

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Interview with Claudio Simonetti and Live Review of Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin at the Crofoot Ballroom, Pontiac, MI, October 14, 2019

Claudio Simonetti and the band Goblin are synonymous with the horror and suspense film genre. The Italian Brazilian-born keyboardist and composer Simonetti began his career in Europe in the early ‘70s playing in a band called Cherry Five. That initial group eventually morphed into what became the progressive rock powerhouse known as Goblin. The band’s partnership with famed Italian film director Dario Argento led to a flourishing career creating soundtracks for his suspenseful crime dramas and supernatural horror films like Deep Red/Profondo Rosso, Suspiria, Tenebrae, and a host of others. Both with Goblin and as a solo artist, Simonetti went on to compose soundtracks for many other directors such as Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi, Lucio Fulci, Lamberto Bava, and Sergio Martino.

photo by Larry Fritzley

Just in time for Halloween, we bring you an up close and personal conversation with Claudio Simonetti, as the band is currently on tour for its third U.S. leg since 2013. We also offer a recent show review from their stop in the Detroit area that was a rare occurrence indeed. So, sit back and enjoy a few moments with one of the legends of progressive rock and the global horror and suspense genre.

Eric Harabadian: Can you clarify the significance behind the band’s title?

Claudio Simonetti: After many member changes over the years I have my own band doing Goblin music.

photo by Eric Harabadian

EH: So, after various personnel changes, it’s back to you leading the band. How long has your current lineup been with you?

CS: My guitar player Bruno Previtali has been with me 20 years. My drummer Federico Maragoni has been with me six months, and our bass player Cecilia Nappo a year and a half. This is the band that recorded our new album.

EH: Can you tell me about the new album?

CS: The album is called “The Devil is Back” and has 10 brand new songs. At the same time we did a “Best Of” album which contains some of the most important songs taken from films like Zombi/Dawn of the Dead, Profondo Rosso, Suspiria, and Tenebrae. They were released for our U.S. tour but are available on Spotify and all the streaming services. Physical copies of the albums will be released everywhere in November of this year.

photo by Larry Fritzley

EH: How did you meet and work with director Dario Argento?

CS: I met Dario Argento in 1975 when he finished the film Deep Red/Profondo Rosso. He was looking for a band to score his picture. We had recorded one album under a different name but with the same members. And we worked with a producer that was already working with Dario. So, when Dario asked the producer for a band, he first wanted to contact Pink Floyd or Deep Purple. But the producer said, “No, I’m producing these Italian guys, and would you listen to them?” And so Dario came by the studio and listened to our music, loved it and decided to have us do the music for Deep Red. That was our first film with Dario, followed by Suspiria. We were very lucky because we were very young, but it worked out, too, because the soundtrack sold 4 million copies. It was incredible. This was especially weird for a prog band like us in Italy. Pop music was mostly big there then.

EH: And, of course, you’ve done a lot of music that goes beyond just horror films. Can you briefly talk about your process when you write for a movie?

CS: In the beginning I talk to the director, and I see the film. And I start to write some of the music for the scenes. Sometimes the director has suggestions, or they give me the freedom to do what I want. But I work watching the film, never before.

EH: Who are some of the biggest artistic influences that have figured into what you do?

CS: The big progressive bands from England like King Crimson, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Deep Purple, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

photo by Larry Fritzley

EH: How long has it been since you last toured with Goblin, and what has been the focus of this current tour?

CS: This is our third tour here. The first was in 2013 with different members. It was two from the original band and two from my band Daemonia. We did a second tour last year as Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin. Last year we played Suspiria, and this year Deep Red.

EH: In addition to this fall U.S. tour, you’re gonna be a part of “Cruise to the Edge” in April 2020, correct?

CS: Yeah, that will be a really good experience with a lot of big names. The band Yes is the main organizer of these gigs on a boat. I’m a big fan of Yes and grew up with them. It will be fantastic to be there. And we will be one of two Italian bands on the cruise. The other is Le Orme, another popular prog band from the ‘70s.

EH: You also worked with George Romero didn’t you?

CS: Actually, no. We did the soundtrack for Dawn of the Dead because Dario Argento asked us to change the music for the European version. I also did a vampire movie for Romero called Martin. But, again, I never did meet Romero directly. I finally did meet him in 2016, a year before he passed away. He was a very nice person.

photo by Eric Harabadian

EH: Your music encompasses so many different elements. How would you describe what you do?

CS: Now, my music is progressive like the ‘70s, but with new sounds. Maybe there is more energy too. I had this band in 2000 called Daemonia that was the same stuff but heavy metal. Now I’ve turned back to the original music. I’ve done a lot of film music for Dario like Phenomena and Opera; that was just me without Goblin. So, when I play live I play Goblin stuff and my stuff.

EH: You’ve played all around the world. Where are some of your favorite places to play and why?

CS: Well, the United States, of course. But we’ve had a lot of success in Japan. I go there every year. We will be going to Japan soon for two concerts where we will play the score to the film Tenebrae.

EH: What has the response been from fans to what you do?

CS: Every show is different. But you know what surprised me more was that young people know this music. I thought only my generation would remember, but there are 20- and 30-year-olds that come with the records and want my autograph. It makes me give thanks to the internet, you know. I don’t think there is nothing special with a lot of new music. I think young people find something new in our vintage music. There is some great new music but the vintage bands like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin are still the best.

EH: Well, I always felt your music has a timeless quality that spans generations.

CS: Yeah, many generations. My audience goes from 20 to 60 years old.

EH: So, is your emphasis now on performing live?

CS: Yes. I don’t work much with soundtracks now. I think it’s a bad period for films, especially horror because they tend to be low budget. I prefer to play live with my new and old stuff. It’s better for me now.

photo by Larry Fritzley

Capturing Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin live is a rare and cinematic experience. You certainly get your money’s worth. The band, in the midst of a multi-state U.S. fall tour, stopped in Pontiac, Michigan at the Crofoot Ballroom for a three-hour-plus extravaganza. The first two hours found the members of Goblin poised on stage, each with instruments in hand, as they diligently watched the screen tracking live the score to Dario Argento’s Deep Red. The 1975 murder/suspense/horror hybrid holds up all these years later, and the original soundtrack performed along with it adds to the film’s vibrancy. From the opening plotline development to the closing credits, watching Simonetti and the Goblin crew in action was a true joy to behold. It was a rare glimpse into the studio process where sound-to-picture aligns and comes alive. Deep Red’s story of musician and amateur sleuth Marcus Daly’s (played excellently by David Hemmings) search to find a psychic’s killer is advanced by the band in three dimensional audio. A lot of the music had a jazz-fusion quality to it that never sounds dated, even though Simonetti is performing music he originally scored for the picture over 40 years ago. During many of the set pieces, Previtali’s tasteful wailing guitar, Nappo’s hefty and lithe bass lines, coupled with Maragoni’s syncopated beats elevated the film’s images to greater heights.

One aspect of the first section of the concert with the film that was truly phenomenal was a scene where main character Marcus Daly is in a haunted mansion and looking for clues to a murder. As he begins striking a wall and attempts to bust through the plaster, drummer Maragoni fervently eyes the screen, matching drum hits to each strike of Daly’s hammer to the mansion wall. At that moment, one really felt like they were in the recording studio laying down the music cues to the film with the band.

photo by Larry Fritzley

After the film portion was done, Simonetti and company played another hour of various instrumental pieces from a host of other Argento films like Demons, Tenebrae, and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. They also performed some brand new tunes from the album The Devil is Back. Smiles on stage lit up all around as Simonetti, Previtali, Nappo, and Maragoni locked in place and bounced all over the landscape, driving their unique brand of progressive rock and electronic-laced rhythms undeniably home.

Claudio Simonetti is truly one of the original masters of Italian rock and world class film scoring. Along with the new Goblin they bring a classic sound that should keep thrilling horror film fans, and just solid music fans, for some time to come. For more information on the band just go to www.goblinsimonetti.com.

Looking Ahead

Per the “tour dates” page on the band’s website, Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin will be in Kawasaki, Japan on October 25th and 26th and Berlin, Germany on October 31st, followed by gigs in Italy: November 1st in Lodi, November 14th in Pistoia, November 15th in Milano, and November 16th in Bologna. And they’ll be performing on Cruise to the Edge 2020, departing from Miami on March 27th, 2020.

Film Review: Jay’s Longhorn: Let’s Make a Scene

image courtesy of Mark Engebretson

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Film Review of Jay’s Longhorn: Let’s Make a Scene

Produced, Written & Directed By: Mark Engebretson; Associate Producer: Jeff Baustert; Associate Producer & Assistant Editor: Tim Beaufoy (Running Time: 92:40)

The Hypstrz; photo by Paul Shambroom; photo courtesy of Mark Engebretson

Jay’s Longhorn: Let’s Make a Scene is the debut full-length documentary for musician-journalist-media professional Mark Engebretson. The film focuses on the long-lamented Minneapolis, Minnesota-based nightclub that emerged in the late ‘70s as a harbor and safe haven for the then-burgeoning punk rock and new wave movement. From the club’s inception June 1st, 1977 through 1982, everybody who was anybody eventually wound up at this landmark venue.

Suicide Commondos; photo by Danny Amis; photo courtesy of Mark Engebretson

As depicted in the film, the Minneapolis rock scene was dominated by cover bars where bands were relegated to four sets a night of standard radio fare. It was akin to an assembly line, and there was no margin for creativity or deviating from the norm. Jay’s Longhorn: Let’s Make a Scene deconstructs the tale of how a group of local music journalists, musicians, and music fans struck out for creating an individualistic music scene where artists could rise up and do their own thing.

NNB; photo by Paul Shambroom; photo courtesy of Mark Engebretson

This story is meticulously and intricately told through the many personal accounts from the folks who were there. And it is a celebrated list of Twin Cities’ natives and national celebrities who tell the story: Peter Jesperson (former manager of The Replacements and Jay’s Longhorn DJ), Andy Schwartz (former editor/publisher of the New York Rocker), The Suicide Commandos, Flamingo/Flamin’ Oh’s, Danny Amis (Los Straightjackets), Bob Mould (Husker Du, Sugar), Fred Schneider (The B-52s), Curtiss A, Jay Berline (founder/owner of Jay’s Longhorn), and many others.

Curtiss A; photo by Paul Shambroom; photo courtesy of Mark Engebretson

While Jay’s Longhorn was a regional venue, to a certain extent it was also quite influential to changing tides in music on a global scale. Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, The Clash, Iggy Pop, The Plasmatics, The Police, Blondie, Talking Heads all were featured or frequented the club when on tour. It was the place to be! And that fact is lovingly portrayed in this film.

Suicide Commandos; photo by Danny Amis; photo courtesy of Mark Engebretson

When Jay’s Longhorn finally hung it up and changed hands in 1982, its legacy was immediately felt by a number of other Twin Cities area venues that rose in its wake. Perhaps Robert Wilkinson of the band Flamingo said it best in his encapsulation of what the club meant to him and so many other up and coming musicians at the time: “You need that stage, you need that place. Everybody has something inside of them that they need to say. Whether you’re a painter or a guitar player or a songwriter, it’s important to have a place to go where you can say what’s inside of you. To have that outlet, that’s what we needed and that’s what we created. And you never wanna stop that.”

Suburbs; photo by Paul Lundgren; photo courtesy of Mark Engebretson

Jay’s Longhorn was that outlet for so many musicians and fans. And this fantastic film drives that message home in a respectful and well crafted manner. For more information on DVD purchasing and streaming go to the Jay’s Longhorn: Let’s Make a Scene website and the Jay’s Longhorn: Let’s Make a Scene page at Vimeo.

Album Review: Simon Scardanelli – The Rock, the Sea, the Rising Tide

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Simon Scardanelli: The Rock, the Sea, the Rising Tide

Simon Scardanelli has a new album release on September 6th. The Rock, the Sea, the Rising Tide is a mature and contemplative listen. Simon takes on the mantle of the balladeer, a storytelling troubadour, regaling us with intriguing tales of high seas and adventure, darkness and human frailty, global catastrophe and personal doubt.

This is a carefully considered body of work. Acoustically styled, guitar picked songs with a sparse balance of additional instruments. The occasional use of violin, cello, recorders, and cumbus, round out each song perfectly.

There is a dark theme of human fragility through the album; it’s like a bleak but majestic windswept moor, or like standing on a wild cliff edge gazing over a brooding misty sea. You listen with suspense, transported by the haunting stories within each song. The narrative of his songs is something Simon has always taken great care with, and the poetry, imagination, and imagery that shines through this album shows how much enjoyment he had in writing them.

The album opens with “The Ballad of Jago Trelawney,” the story of a Cornish tin miner summoned into navy service for his country, which ends in a tragic sea battle. Based around a fictional character, the events it describes are from an actual battle that took place in 1793 between the ships English Nymph and the French Cleopatra. It’s from the chorus of this song that the album takes its name.

The album is full of imagined and real-life experiences that Simon has woven into an intriguing and rewarding musical landscape. The perils and mysteries of the ocean continue in the unfolding tales “The Cold Green Sea” and “Pearly Diving Sea,” leading to the only instrumental in this collection. “Becalmed” provides a moment to reflect before the wind once again whips us on to the lightly picked and beautifully haunting “Different.”

The next track is the most personal and introspective song on the album. “Patience” steps away, for a moment, from the more enigmatic storytelling and provides a more direct insight into the writer’s own creative world and, dare I say, insecurities.

Next up is “Human Nature – the Cry.” “Human Nature” was the first single from the album and is a clear warning of the climate change disaster that threatens the planet we live on and the arrogant disregard a particular world leader pays to the threat. It’s a spartan and compelling listen. Complexity disguised with chameleon simplicity with a depth of thought behind every carefully chosen word and guitar phrase.

More human vulnerability and oracular observation are brought forth in “A Simple Case of Time” and “Star City,” which has quirkier feel but remains moodily within the album’s sense of positive desolation.

Before we reach the album’s conclusion, Simon sings touchingly and illustratively on “Requiem for the City of New York,” which is a reflective backward glance at a city he once lived in.

Finally, there is an alternate version of “Human Nature – the Lament.” It is less strident and angry than the single version. It’s sadder and more resigned, and this presents the song in a very different light, which provides a fitting end to this thought-provoking album.

Once again Simon has produced an album uncompromisingly his own. Different from all that has come before and no doubt from what he will do next. This is no fashion-following attempt to please anyone but himself. As he sings in the song “Patience,” “Jumping on a bandwagon seems to be the next big thing.” Never so for Simon Scardanelli, and in following his heart, he has made an album of bleak majesty which pulls its listener deep under crashing waves to the ethereal realm that lies beneath their cacophony. A place of quiet solemnity, where you have space to ponder and unravel these modern folk chronicles as they are spun out before you in sparse but richly delivered song.

You can read more of what Simon had to say about his new album in a recent interview I did with him here.

Keep up-to-date with his news and live shows through his website www.scardanelli.com or on social media: Twitter: @scardo; Facebook: @SimonScardanelliMusic.

Interview with Simon Scardanelli

Simon Scardanelli

photo courtesy of Simon Scardanelli

An insightful interview with the highly creative and much undervalued singer and songwriter Simon Scardanelli

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

Singer and guitarist Simon Scardanelli has released many creatively successful albums, singles, and EPs since his initial chart success in the late ’80s with the duo Big Bam Boo. Following the U.S. top 40 hit “Shooting From My Heart” in 1989, Simon relocated from London to New York where he lived, worked and recorded for a few years in the underbelly of New York’s Lower East Side. His darkly challenging album Death Row Tales in 1994 bears testament to that dark and dangerous lifestyle. Since then he released 4 albums and 3 EPs, all embracing different aspects and genres of his musical passion.

Now spending most of his time living in France, he has spent the past few months busily making a new album, his first in three years. The Rock, the Sea, the Rising Tide will be released in September, and I tracked him down to his bespoke studio tucked away in beautiful Brittany in France where he kindly agreed to answer a few questions about it.

Q. Your last album, Make Us Happy, was released three years ago in 2016. Have you spent that time writing new material with the goal of making an album, or do you sit down and write the album once you have decided to make one?

Simon: The plan was to record and release a follow-up much sooner, but building the studio here in Brittany took much longer than expected. It was quite frustrating to be in this beautifully inspiring area but have no way to record, until I’d got my hands really dirty and finished the studio. I was writing all this time – I do tend to be always writing, or at least sketching and laying down ideas on my iPad or phone, but I was itching to get into the studio and record them. The studio was completed in October 2018, and I started work on the album I guess around November.

Q. How many songs would you typically write whilst making a new album and do you find yourself being very critical of what you write, to the extent that maybe there are songs you recorded that you have left off?

Simon: What tends to happen is I have a lot (tens, probably more) of basic sketches, some more complete than others. Then a few will start to emerge as definite contenders. Around these I’ll start to form an idea for the overall shape of an album. The album started out with the title Wood Amongst the Trees, but I’d already sketched the title The Rock, the Sea, the Rising Tide as a possible song title in a separate thread of my sketches, intending that for a different album. Then as the songs started to emerge I realised the themes were pushing me towards The Rock, the Sea, the Rising Tide, so I shelved the Wood album ideas and started to look for the rest of the songs for this album. Yes, I’m super-critical of what I write! Much gets thrown away – or at least stored in folders called “song ideas” by year, such that I have countless possibilities to go back over, which I do from time to time. Occasionally I’ll dig into these archives and pull something out that I complete. My last single, “Human Nature,” was one of these that had been sitting on file for at least a year or more – not lyrically, just the guitar shapes and song melody. As to leaving off songs that are completed: not often really, as I find the process of completing the song in the first place pretty well determines whether it’s going to make the album. So if a song is not coming up to scratch, it doesn’t get finished. At that point I should throw it away… but it ends up in an “ideas” folder anyway. There was one complete song that didn’t make this album, though it was intended to be included – when I came to sequence the songs, I simply couldn’t fit this in. Thematically it was wrong. It’s a song called “Mary’s Home,” about a woman I met when I was in my 20s who’d spent most of her adult life in an asylum, and was child-like at 45, working as a cleaner in a cafe I worked in briefly. When all the songs were completed this one really didn’t fit. Not sure if I’ll release it or put it on another album. We’ll see. Also the single “Without You,” from the end of 2018, was originally meant to be on this album, but that was from the Wood Amongst the Trees mindset, and again, I didn’t really feel it belonged on this album. I’ve been playing it a lot live and actually want to re-record it as there’s a tiny error in the middle 8 lyric that bugs me, and I think it’s benefited (as most songs do) from being performed a lot. So it may end up on an album called Wood Amongst the Trees, or I may scrap that concept altogether and include this on a different album. There’s also the possibility that I re-record it with musicians in a different style; I never know…

Simon Scardanelli

photo courtesy of Simon Scardanelli

Q. After recording the songs how much do you have to listen and live with the tracks until you’re finally happy to release them, and do you ever listen back to your old albums and enjoy them, or do you hear all the things you wish, in hindsight, you had done to them?

Simon: Oh blimey that’s a can of worms! For this album I was trying to keep everything very live and spontaneous. I didn’t want a big production – Make Us Happy wasn’t a “big” production, but it had different forces and was definitely a project that took some serious mixing and editing, arranging etc. Most of that album had percussionist Javier Forero playing cajón, so I recorded that first with a guide, sometimes final, acoustic guitar part, then built everything around that. So violins, saxophone, clarinet, accordion, etc. were all added one by one, and that meant I could do several takes of each instrument, then compile the best takes. It also meant that I could really take time getting the vocal takes I wanted. The new album, however, I recorded mostly in one takes – vocal and guitar together. And this ended up giving me a completely different set of problems, ones that ended up being every bit as challenging as the multi-track approach. So my original idea, to quickly lay down an acoustic one-take album, went out of the window very quickly! I had to make some serious compromises. Firstly, I was playing every song finger style, something I’d been drawn back to these past couple of years – I studied classical guitar in the ’80s but hadn’t used finger style much in the intervening years. Now playing finger style and singing at the same time is – for me, at least – not as comfortable as plectrum playing. Or, at least, I had to re-learn how to do this. So as I was writing I was also exploring techniques – “Human Nature – the Cry,” for example, is an arpeggio (p.i.m.a. for those who play classical; I’ve written the score and it is available!) played throughout the entire song, and a couple of the shapes are a bit tricky to manage – and my engineering and producer head shouted at me whenever I misplayed or crashed a finger on a string, or let the wrong string ring, etc., etc. So I had ongoing battles between perfection and performance at every take. On top of that, when you’re doing loads of takes to try and get the playing exactly right and perfectly in time – can’t click-track this kind of thing – there’s often an engineering problem; you move a few inches to the left and go off mic, or the guitar develops a buzz (this happened to my lovely Furch, un-beknown to me the under-floor heating that I thought was so clever to install in the control room dried out the Furch sitting on a floor stand…) Add to that the necessity to get a great vocal at the same time and – well, it was to say the least a very frustrating process. In fact “Human Nature – the Cry” led to bleeding fingers on my right hand as I played the arpeggio over and over for three days to get it right… ah, so that’s why classical guitars have nylon strings!

So listen and live with the tracks? Yes, and try not to be so OCD about sound quality or timing issues or mis-fingerings, etc. The song “Different” caused me real heartache! So the original almost-demo version I laid down was in my view the best I’d ever sung it. The falsetto voice in the choruses had exactly the fragility I wanted. But some of the verses weren’t great. For a couple of weeks I’d record another version and then leave it a day or two to compare. Always came back to the very flawed first take. But I knew I simply couldn’t get away with it. So eventually managed to re-record a version I was happy with – performance-wise – only to find that the final chorus was really distorted on the guitar mic. The guitar part throughout is very delicate, and I’d obviously set the input level to suit that. But with no possibility to adjust it when I got to the end (the perils of working solo), there was a very limited amount of headroom to play with, and I crashed through that. In the end I had to live with it.

I don’t tend to listen to old albums, though when I do hear tracks I’m usually just about OK with the result from that distance, with the exception of the Dr. Scardo album Dark Dog Days; I hate the sound of that album. I was working in a leased studio (before I built my studio in the back garden) that had the worst control room ever, and I tried to compensate for so much, ended up over-compressing and distorting much of the album. I keep saying I’ll re-mix and master it, but it’s such a big job I probably won’t; I tend to want to move forward always and not dwell on past recordings.

Q. You write, record, and produce your music in your own custom studio. Do you like the autonomy of working this way, or would you like to work with a producer who would take some of the creative decisions for you? I think I am right to say that the last time you were produced by someone else was back in your Big Bam Boo days (for the uninitiated, check out the 1989 album Fun Faith and Fairplay),although you did have others working with you on the recording, mix and mastering of your acoustic album Hobohemia in 2005.

Simon: Well, I’d absolutely love to have a producer or an engineer work with me! But the reality of being an independent self-releasing artist is that there is simply no money for that. In the “old days,” signed to a label, a well-rehearsed band could put an album together in weeks with the right team. And certainly sharing some of the creative decision-making would take the album in different ways and could be rewarding. However, I do like the autonomy, of course. I’m not trying to either “get a deal” – or compete with anyone with my artistic output. So I’ve no “sound” to mimic or achieve in order to satisfy some vague industry trend or standard. In fact, I think music has become so commodified and coded that as an independent artist I feel an obligation to do exactly what I want, even to the point of it not appealing to mass media. I’ve learned to make records (let’s call them that – they are a record, a document of artistic statement of a particular time, not a product to be foisted upon a gullible public!) that satisfy, or at least attempt to satisfy, my artistic development. The popular song format has been around a very long time, and my duty as an artist is to try and stretch it, build upon the format, just a little. Not revolutionary, just evolutionary. Trying to dig into the genre and dig into my inner musician to see if I can add something to the cannon.

Hobohemia was interesting in the making in that I hadn’t recorded for many, many years. In fact, I was rather out of voice at the time and had only just started playing live again. So whilst I had an engineer at the studio, it was pretty well straight takes. I called in my friend Richard Mainwaring (producer of the first Big Bam Boo album, with a very fine set of ears!) to help me master it in my then-damp, dark studio basement, and that was really helpful. However, going back to your earlier question, I cannot listen to that album at all! For me the voice is strained and restricted. I was an emotional wreck at the time, going through divorce, becoming a single parent, etc., and it shows. When asked at gigs which album they should buy, I tend to steer people away from that one, even though my attic has plenty of stock that I should be shifting! I always feel that they may be disappointed by it, having seen me live currently. But then again, plenty who do buy it tell me they love it so… what does the artist know? Nothing!

Q. Your new album is an acoustic, solo affair. This is only the second time you have made a whole album like that. As I mentioned, Hobohemia was your previous acoustic album, and it includes one of your most popular songs “Fish Out Of Water.” Did that have any influence on your decision to make the new album, or is there a particular story and theme behind the new album that made you think it should be recorded in an acoustic style? I believe you recorded the songs in live takes. Did that present you with any particular difficulties?

Simon: Well, yes, difficulties I’ve already spoken about, and in future if I record this way I probably will take the songs out live for a time first to really know them and break them in. I think there may have been a small influence of the Hobohemia legacy that made me want to do a totally acoustic album, but mainly it was that here in France, where I’ve lived for a couple of years now, my audiences are mostly real listening audiences. It’s the reception I get here that encouraged me to write songs that were less “in your face” than before. So songs like “Patience” or “Requiem,” from the new album, go down really well here, even though not everyone understands the lyrics to any real extent, but they do seem to get the overall emotional story. And that is an interesting situation for me, as I began my songwriting career as a 16 year old trying to write interesting, lyrical, and not very commercial songs in my various bedsits and hippy camps! Some time around the ’80s I must have decided that I needed a “record deal,” and that’s when the art took second place, I think. So, in a way, being here is a return to an artistic sensibility not based on any commercial considerations. I’m pretty sure I can say that I wouldn’t have written most of this album had I still been in the UK and trying to gig there.

Q. Do you think in the future you may return to a full band sound like you had on Make Us Happy, or would you even consider working collaboratively with musicians in a band as you did in 2013 on your Dr. Scardo album Dark Dog Days? What are the pros and cons of working these ways and in the end do you actually prefer working alone?

Simon: Definitely planning a follow up to Make Us Happy; I’ve wanted to for a while. It may be called Makes Us Mad, as the political situation worldwide continues to deteriorate and distress me. I have started collecting musicians I feel would work for this next ensemble piece. I want to see if I could get a near-full Breton musician line-up. So that’s probably my next move. There are sketches in a folder, and of course the studio is ready. Biggest problem here is everyone lives 50 kilometres away from anything. So getting disparate forces together the way I could in Brighton in the UK is a far harder task. But, fortunately, most of the musicians I’ve met are keen to be involved in anything challenging and new, so that’ll happen eventually.

I’ve also just this week had a visit from an old friend from my Berlin and New York days, who has been living back in Australia these past 5 years. I last saw him in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he was living, designing sets for the Kirov Ballet. We did a couple of great shows there with his band. He’s putting a really exciting audio-visual project together, and it looks as if I’ll get involved. It’ll be a live show over three days in a theatre in Edinburgh next year, not available as a recording, but as a video eventually. Something big and noisy and completely uncompromisingly art-rock! As to a rock outfit like Dr. Scardo, probably not, but I did recently meet a piano player and rhythm section at a “boef” (a jam session) in Dinan, and we promised we’d try and get together and do something. I’m keen to try a sort of piano trio with guitar outfit in a cabaret type of setting, sort of louche and slightly decadent. Funny enough a few of my songs will work as they are with a piano backing. We’ll see!

Q. After over 30 years of writing songs do you feel more creatively equipped and inspired now than in the past, and do you continue to strive to find words and music to illustrate your songs that stand out from the ordinary and contrived songwriting, that could be said to be widespread these days? Is it possible that this laudable attribute in making your songs as interesting and challenging as you can could somehow mean people find it hard to pigeon hole your style? This is probably a good thing anyway, isn’t it? I mean, after all, great songs are exactly that, whatever their style or genre, and who wants to ruled by what people expect you to do or sound like? Has it held you back, or are you past caring?

Simon: More equipped, definitely. Inspired, too, but it is always hard work, my cliché-o-meter works overtime. Certainly that means I’m not pigeonholed, but it makes following my own path harder, and whilst musicians now have the means of production, the sheer volume of noise out there makes it very difficult to be heard. As to being held back or whatever, I really don’t know. I’m not good at self-promotion. I used to be way back in London in the ’80s when I was flogging my various bands, but now I really don’t know how to do all that stuff, so I’m not past caring, but I am really more interested in spending my time creating works of beauty.

Q. Once the album is released in September, what do you plan to do next?

Simon: I’m already planning the next projects as I’ve said, Breton musicians, cabaret quartet, and Edinburgh project – no doubt something else will come up, too, that may distract me from all or any of these projects. The important thing is to be always creating, always writing. I intend to also spend my time booking shows here in France, build up my network of musicians for my own projects, and possibly get involved in others.

So after a thoroughly enjoyable, insightful and enlightening conversation with Simon in his lovely French countryside studio I thanked him kindly and wished him well before heading off to listen to my copy of his new album which I shall enjoy reviewing for you next month.