queen esther, music


This Rock n' Roll BlackGrrl's High Life

A Cautionary Tale

Entries by tag: songwriting

I'm a regional finalist in the 2013 Mountain Stage NewSong Contest!
queen esther, music
i sent three songs from my next black americana/country/rock album as an afterthought to this contest a few weeks ago -- i seriously don't even remember which ones i sent -- and was genuinely surprised to get their warm, generic congratulatory email.  i dropped them a line to find out which songs were in play and as luck would have it, they're my favorites: love is a wrecking ball, will you or won't you and oh sun. apparently, they sifted through a jillion songs and i'm one of ten in my region. from here, they choose one from the ten of each region, which will leave six finalists.

interestingly, i have until saturday to submit a video of me playing one of my songs. whoever gets the most hits will be a people's choice finalist. i was going to play one that i already submitted but then again, i just wrote one that i feel strongly about. it's not very folky or fingerpicky at all but i mean it when i sing it -- and i suppose that's enough. God help me.

that'll be real special, cranking up my pignose amp and singing without a mic in my little makeshift harlem manse, what with all these touchy white people in my building now that want to live quiet, sanitized city lives, with no negroes. how oxymoronic can you get?  harlem is still a ghetto, in spite of their best intentions. if they want the suburbs, why are they here?  you can only imagine exactly how i intend to serve it up to the first well-intentioned, pasty-faced sex and the city wannabe that knocks on my door and "politely" orders me to turn down the volume. good times.

here's the lowdown. and yeah, you kind of need a color coded flow chart to understand how this whole thing unravels.

Yes, it can be done...
queen esther, music

I LOVE this infographic because it's so easy to see how money can come from every direction if you work the art of the hustle. The problem is, some musicians just don't know what that is, exactly. There really is a way to work smarter, not harder. (Writing songs -- music and lyrics -- and owning your publishing is key.) It's definitely much bigger than "get out there and promote yourself" -- and ultimately, that's a lesson for everyone.

The Future of Music Coalition's list of 42 different sources of income is more than viable, too.  The thing is, it takes way more money than this to live in New York City. I'm not so sure about sponsorship or streaming but crowdsourcing is a great idea. Anything to turn a hobby into cash.

i'm not sure how this goes
record label, blackgrrl
i just saw the rolling stones' documentary crossfire hurricane. for some strange reason, i can't stop thinking about it.

are they the greatest rock and roll band in the world? i haven't heard every rock band there is to make an adequate comparison so i have absolutely no idea. they're certainly everywhere, and they have been for quite some time. with the release of keith's book, mick's book, a brand new album and that world tour they're assembling, a documentary that very neatly sums them up dovetails quite nicely into their ongoing rock and roll blitzkrieg -- a well-staged pr cornucopia of epic proportions -- that will no doubt continue to build for as long as the machine says so.

it's important to know your rock and roll history -- not much is worse than an artist that's ignorant of the basics in their genre -- and documentaries are a great way to learn all about it, so i was looking forward to this one.  i suppose if you've seen one vh1 behind the music or tvone unsung you've seen them all: the band somehow finds fame and eventually fortune and then drugs and loses it all. or there is fame and fortune and mismanagement and drugs and death and a very sad comeback. or there is marginal fame and no fortune and mismanagement and drugs. lots of drugs. you get the idea. and yet, as each story unravels, i'm transfixed.  there's a lesson in there for all of us, if we look hard enough.

crossfire hurricane was no different, really. the band finds fame and then they find drugs and then whilst bouncing in and out of rehab and court and jail and even after the unexpected death of one member, they consistently make albums and eventually figure out how to write good songs. here's the part that made me sit up straight: one day in the 70s, mick looked up and realized that although they had sold millions of records, he didn't own anything.  it is with this epiphany that we have the earnest and humble beginnings of the rolling stones, incorporated.  in short, they surrounded themselves with savvy businesspeople, made smart investments, re-tooled their entire tour operation -- and yes, they continued to bounce in and out of rehab while consistently releasing albums.

at this point, i shouldn't state the obvious but i will anyway: there is no formula for success in the music industry. everybody knows what they like, but no one knows that this is the song that's going to be a hit. no one knows which band is going to make it. no one knows anything at all. it's all a crap shoot. anything goes.

sure, things have changed since the rolling stones got signed in the 60s -- but then again, things have changed since nirvana got signed in the 90s. thanks to digital recordings, social media, youtube, cdbaby and stuff like courtney love doing the math, steve albini telling it like it is and amanda palmer's rampant success on kickstarter, getting signed to a major label isn't everyone's end goal. when you can sell your songs to ad agencies, get a fat check and keep your masters, why should it be?   the good news is, there are ways to make a living as a musician -- but you must take the business end of things very seriously. most artists don't.

(someone should make a documentary about the death of the music industry and the rise of the indie musician.)

over time, the rolling stones a billion dollar corporate entity. just think about all of the people they have on that payroll -- lawyers, accountants, nannies, caterers, investment bankers, you name it. none of this could get off the ground if it weren't resting on the strength of 29 studio albums, 17 live albums, 30 compilation albums, three extended play singles, and 107 singles.  in other words, none of this would be happening if their songs were lousy. 

when it comes to the business of music, dolly parton is the one i've always admired. nevermind her work as a film/tv producer (buffy the vampire slayer, father of the bride), theme park proprietor or philanthropist. as a musician and songwriter, she has always owned all of her publishing -- something neither the rolling stones nor the beatles can claim -- and she owns her masters (they can't claim that, either). she also owns her record label (she's been releasing albums on her own imprint since 2000) and recording studio.  she says she's written over 3,000 songs and she's got a pretty overwhelming discography to back it up.

the playing field has been leveled and the games have definitely begun but i'm not sure how this goes.  while everything gets sorted out -- recording, mixing, mastering, marketing -- i'm going to keep writing songs and taking notes. 

things are starting to get really interesting...

Top 10 Things I Learned On My Last European Tour
queen esther, music
This list is just a few random, pithy observations I jotted down when I was running around with guitar icon James "Blood" Ulmer in Europe a few months ago. It isn't in order, it's hardly definitive and it certainly isn't written in stone. 

10.  Make sure everything is in order before you leave home. Be sure to do stuff like update your website and bring your business cards. Sounds pretty obvious, right?  Heh. You’d be surprised how many musicians don’t have a website. Or if they do have one, they rarely update it. I know quite a few people who consider business cards to be, to quote one guitarist, corny. That may be true when you're running around in your neck of the woods and you're dealing with the same people you've known for awhile. When you're on the other side of the world, though, business cards are essential.

If you're an independent artist that wants to make a living at this, it's not really a good idea to make it difficult to be found.  Everything isn't word of mouth and everyone doesn't know who you are.  So don't use business cards, if you can't stand them. But for cryin' out loud -- use something.

9.   Don’t be the ugly American. Dictionary.com defines "the Ugly American" as a pejorative term for Americans traveling or living abroad who remain ignorant of local culture and judge everything by American standards. They are typically loud, jingoistic, arrogant and a genuine embarrassment to other Americans who don’t behave that way. To tell you the truth, I’ve seen plenty of Europeans come off like that when they get over here – but that’s another conversation.

My suggestion? Don’t be such a self-absorbed narcissistic diva rock star that you’re somehow rendered incapable of reading up on the history and the culture of the places you’ll visit before you get there – and even though you probably won’t have to hold a lengthy conversation with any of the hoi polloi, make an effort to speak the language. When I launched into my rudimentary German, everyone lit up – probably because it was so horrible.

Trust me, it won’t kill you to learn how to say good morning in Croatian. It didn't kill me.

8. Update social media regularly. Not so easy when you’re in a van for hours on end, driving through the Swiss Alps with an Android. *sigh* Thankfully, I had a MacBookPro with me, so I could jump online from the hotel – if they had wifi. And yeah, sometimes they didn’t.

My last tour was a series of one-nighters that lasted for about two weeks. All of it turned into a technicolor blur of epic proportions after the first 3 days. Of course I want the world to see what I'm doing and interact with me in the process but taking pictures, blogging and tweeting all about it was for me, really. It's the way I document what I do. Otherwise, all of it becomes more and more vague, and then one day blends seamlessly into another, and then I don't really remember any of it -- especially when I think I do.

When it's time to write a book about all of this, these little notes will be very important.

7. Don’t minimize, disregard or otherwise ignore this business of music. Do your homework, constantly -- because school is always in session. Which one of them is the promoter?  Who does the booking for that band?  What music festivals happen in this region?  Who sponsors them? You get the idea. Maybe its me but I always want to know who I'm talking to and where I am and how things are pronounced and what that means and when is the next truck stop.

6. Keep in touch with everyone. I collect business cards and take copious notes and at the end of each tour, I send everyone on my list picture postcard thank you notes. And yes, they’ll all be getting Christmas cards, too. How else will they remember me?

5. Analyze and refine your performance constantly.  Seriously, if I wanted to see you just stand there, I’d stay home and crank your CD.

I’m always surprised by how many musicians refuse to perform onstage.  They don’t really make an effort to engage the audience, to entertain the crowd, to reach beyond that fourth wall and give what can only be described as good show. Or maybe they think that playing and singing is enough. It ain’t. Not if you want a live show that precedes you. And in the long run, that is what you want, because if you work it right, the record label can't touch the money you make on the road.

Personally, I can’t stand a dead mic. Performing is just as important as everything else I’m doing while I’m up there because it gives me a chance to connect to absolutely everyone in the room. It also gives me a chance to introduce myself and let my performance sell my albums. 
All of that goes out the window if there’s no merchandise or CDs to sell, though.

4.      MERCHANDISE  = CASH MONEY  Nevermind the megatours with the jillion dollar rock stars who have signed deals with manufacturers to manage and sell their merch. Every DIY indie band or artist that ever ventured forth on the road for any length of time will testify to the fact that the CDs and t-shirts they sold on the road kept them in the black -- and in many instances, it paid for the tour. No wonder major labels want a piece of that action.

3.    Take idiot checks seriously. Forgetting things in your hotel room or on the plane or in that limo or whatever is for millionaires and/or rock stars who behave like millionaires because they’re the only ones who can afford to replace whatever they misplace – or send the help (or the roadie) to retrace their precious self-important steps and fetch it. 

I didn’t lose anything on the road. * knock on wood * I’m on a budget.

2. Always remember: Your music is brand new to someone somewhere in the world all the time.  This is the reason why it doesn’t matter when you released your album or whether it was successful initially by conventional standards. Somewhere in the world, someone is always listening and ready to embrace, as Elvis would say, the wonder of you.

Case in point?  After a small amount of critical attention initially, the title track to Nick Drake’s 1972 release Pink Moon faded into obscurity – until singer-songwriters discovered him in the 80s. The song Pink Moon was used in a 1999 car commercial and after that, it skyrocketed to the top of the charts. And the rest, as they say, is history.

1.  Make albums and release them on a regular basis – by any means necessary. This is a great way to build an audience, create a body of work that represents you and grow steadily as a musician and as a songwriter. It's also a great way to learn about the business of music. Those rose colored rock star glasses come off pretty quickly when one is faced with the reality of what it means to make an album, from start to finish.

At the end of the day, an album is a snapshot of who you are and whatever you're going through in that particular moment in your life. It's nice to look at every so often but you can't be expected to live inside of that snapshot any more than you can expect a cloud you saw on a sunny blue sky day to look like a bunny whenever there's daylight.

Leave a trail of snapshots. If you're really lucky, someone will eventually put all of the pieces together.

make an album, the old fashioned way
queen esther, music
imagine this, if you can. (and let's face it -- if you call yourself an r&b/hip-hop artist/performer/producer nowadays, there's a fairly strong chance that you probably can't.)

the year is 1923. you're a singer, doing an important recording session for a well-known label. for the sake of this little illustration let's say a name you probably know: columbia records.  all of the musicians are in the same room, of course. in the best case scenario, the engineer and the producer are in a control room. now, here's where things get interesting: you, the vocalist, must sing into the broad, gaping mouth of a huge conical horn that etches your voice onto the groove of a waxlike disc. technology will only allow one playback in the studio, and because of this, the first recordings were balance tests. once the desired sound was achieved, the session continued unabated. the thing is, you didn't hear the result for a few days -- not until you got those test pressings back from the factory. that's why artists would perform a song over and over again in the studio until it sounded right -- and then perhaps they'd make a spare take, just in case.

that's right.  all of you collectively have to play through the whole song -- no stops, no mistakes, no do-overs -- without even being able to hear what you've just done to gauge as to whether it's any good, if you've got the right feel, if you're on the right track or any of that other feel-good flotsam and jetsam that happens when you're recording. it's got to be good -- it better be way more than good -- straight out of the hatch. 

an acoustic performance? no amplification whatsoever? into a gigantic cone? yeah, you'd better have a powerful voice. that song you're doing, you'd better know it like the back of your hand. it's probably something you've crisscrossed the country performing in sideshows and minstrel shows and town halls and whatnot. and that band you've got backing you -- they've worked together for years, haven't they.  they can really, really play.

of course, those of you who are up on your game in terms of music history know that i'm referring to bessie smith's first recording session with columbia records. and now (as paul harvey would say) you know the rest of the story...

today's recording technology is completely digital. you, the "vocalist" (because we really can't call a lot of that stuff singing, can we?) can have your performance played back immediately and any flaws can be done over as many times as you like, so as to fit seamlessly into the song. even if you're tone deaf (and yikes! so many are!), we can raise certain notes to where they should be -- with autotune! -- and that process is seamless, too. i've often wondered what it would be like to put r&b/hip-hop artists/producers in a recording studio circa 1920. how would rihanna fare under those circumstances? i suppose quincy jones said it best (even after he tried to clean up his rather pointed remarks) but still and all, i wonder: whatever would those musical titans think of kanye as a music producer and his inability to play an instrument, to arrange or orchestrate, or even compose? wouldn't fats waller or duke ellington or lil armstrong wonder why he was there in the first place?

if i had a sketch comedy show, that would be the first send up: a hip-hop producer traveling back in time to work with alberta hunter and joe "king" oliver's hot five, which featured louis armstrong. or bessie smith in the here and now, with that powerhouse voice of hers nailing everyone to the wall.  demanding ice cold gin in an old jelly jar.  and someone, black or white, getting in her way, mouthing off and getting their ass handed to them.

this is the stuff i think about as i stand on the verge of completing my second black americana album. i'm doing this on 2 inch tape, by the way -- at the maid's room in new york city's lower east side. i've got three covers on this one. the rest are songs that i've written. most of the takes are simultaneous and the vocals are sung all the way through -- one pass at a time, steady as i go. i don't believe in "punching it in" if i can help it. i'm convinced that it kills the emotional continuity inside my voice. i don't believe in reverb, either.  actually, there's a lot of stuff that people who sing use nowadays that i don't believe in.  this is very hard to explain to some people in my life who watch way too much mtv/vh1/bet. because of this, they think that they know way more about the music industry than i do.  frankly, i wouldn't be surprised if they did.

don't get me wrong, i'm not against sounding like a robot when you sing -- whatever blows your hair back, i say -- but when someone like lil' wayne decides to stop it with the vocoder, you'd think it would give some of these folks reason to pause.

glazed and obtuse
queen esther, music
spent the better part of the week in portland maine, decompressing. when i wasn't half-naked and sequestered in a clean, well-appointed hotel room -- curtains drawn, chugging ice water, working on a handful of new song ideas and watching foreign movies on netflix -- i was taking long walks through cold sunny streets that were filled with freaks and wierdos, and wandering in and out of cool bookstores, second hand clothing stores, and coffee shops. the evenings would find my permanent boyfriend and i eating in some low brow five star over the top situation that was overwhelming gastronomically in all the right ways.  this town is a foodie's wet dream.  

am i making progress? am i getting anything done? is all of this noise making its way through me like some crystalline dream, so heavy with the burden of my happy guilt? is everything moving this fast? is anything moving at all? am i the one that's moving -- or am i standing still?

that's a theory of relative motion, isn't it. special relativity. objects moving in a frame of reference have their own frame of reference. i wish someone had explained that to me as a little girl. i would have felt a lot better about forging ahead and being my own person.  but that's something else.

everything is a blur, a cy twombly blur. hopefulness, vivid and pungent, smears itself onto me in thick globs of despair and longing. my backdrop stays plain and full of words.  and suddenly, as is often the case, there is a sudden explosion. an idea, a thought. a conversation. happy moments, stitched together into a few days of blissful wonder. a list of things i have to do, a somewhere i have to be. i glide through my gotham cityscape in sing-song: there is work and there is fun and there is too much to be done... 

and yet in spite of this, in spite of my best efforts to stay busy, in spite of whatever happiness there is, and the joy that is forever and abundant, there are moments when grief overwhelms me. and suddenly, as is often the case, the residue is everywhere.  i don't see him in my dreams, but God knows i see him everyplace else. not as before, but clearly now. and with so much love, it hurts.

this is what the songs are made of. this is the dna that runs through them. and for all the brighter moments when i am glazed and obtuse, when all that grief has dulled me out past the point of caring, something sparks anew.

i can only hope that someday will i ever know exactly what it is.

all work and all play
queen esther, music
i'm on the verge of disappearing into a recording studio in a few days and finishing an album that has been sitting on my lap for quite some time. at the moment, i'm trying really hard to get out of the way and let it be whatever it is.  going against the grain is one thing, but why pitch my sails against the wind? 

i'm working hard to put all of this together and it's coming together but i honestly believe that after a certain point, there's only but so much that i can do. something in me throws up my hands because i know that something else has to drive all of this besides me and my dint of will, or it won't work.  i don't wait for inspiration. i make room for it, knowing that if i do all the things that i'm supposed to do, and if i'm open and ready and willing, it will show up. and it does.

i know that i'm being guided along by unseen forces that are working in concert to make this black americana idea of mine a reality, and i am more than happy to drift along for the ride. the more i get out of the way, the more things seem to come together in this seamless way that seems effortless.  but it isn't effortless. not by a long shot. it's all so organic. there's no struggle, no contention.  the way is being made clear to finish this. i'm elated. wonderful things will pop off when we are all together and all of it gets going. who knows what that'll be?

12 songs. 2 covers. the rest are originals -- all mine. there's more where they came from but these have a flow that i didn't want to interrupt.

here's the thing. all these spontaneous outbursts of creativity in every direction, they're fun and all, but if i don't have anything concrete to show for it, in the end, i'm abysmally disappointed. live performance is a beautiful thing, but it's just not enough anymore. i remember when it used to be but i was doing a lot more theater then and truthfully, that had its' own frustrations, too.

making records -- and self-releasing them, mind you, with publicity and radio promotion -- is a great way to have something to show for my time, to mark my growth as a songwriter and musician, and to build my publishing arm.  all good things.

what i'm really looking forward to is nasoalmo in november.

yes, again!
queen esther, music
just submitted lyrics to the international songwriting competition, along with a song in two categories. (yes, again.) i barely made the deadline. i feel like charlie brown and they're lucy van pelt, holding that football and telling me calmly that they won't jerk it away at the very last second, sending me careening up into the air and landing flat on my back. and just like charlie brown, i believe it - right up to the second my foot doesn't make contact, and i go sailing towards the sky, head over heels...

but, hang on a tic. my foot did make contact with that football last year. i got an honorable mention in the lyrics category. so that means either miss van pelt is getting a little slow at snatching the ball away, or my kick is getting faster and stronger and, well, better.  i really would like to believe that i'm geting better at this, but who knows if me being good is enough. it's all so subjective. what's enough is that i'm actually doing this whole sing and play guitar and write songs about whatever moves you thing, and i'm really falling in love with the process.

and for the moment, that's enough of a kick for me. that, and making records.

next on the list -- the independent music awards.

on to the next album: mining for black country gold
queen esther, music
now that the 12 week radio and press push for my jazz cd "what is love?" is up and off the ground and very much in play, i'm turning my attention to finishing my country album. not that i haven't been working on it. i already know what i want to call it and most of the songs are finished. especially the ones that are still in my head. it's been marinating inside me for a long while, and although a lot of it is in the can, i think i want to shift gears in a slightly different direction because of the new ideas that have jumped off in me recently. what i'm really hoping is that i can go into the studio and record all the songs that i have in me -- probably enough for 2 or 3 albums.

wierd, the things that inspire me.

to tell you the truth, for this project, it's basically everyone else's conflamma -- though it certainly started with my own.  awhile ago -- wow, it feels like a million years ago! yay! i'm over it! -- someone cut me all the way down to the bone and the only way i could resolve any of my feelings about him and find real closure was to write songs. i write what i hear in my head and for some strange reason, what was playing on my mental/emotional radio station for a long while was country music. probably because i played guitar so badly that i couldn't manage to handle more than 3 chords at a time. and you know what harlan howard says - "country music is three chords and the truth."

harlan howard also says, "i'm always collecting emotions for future reference." boy howdy, that's a real bad habit with me, and it's been years in the making. i've always been an empathetic person, more than willing to put myself in someone else's shoes to get a deeper look into their perspective, even when i was a kid. especially when i was a kid. how many times have i found myself eavesdropping in the oddest situations, on buses or at the grocery store, or even while i'm waiting for my laundry to dry. just sitting there, absentmindedly listening to one end of a disjointed conversation and letting my imagination roll over the rest of it like falling water, filling in those strange jagged emotional blanks.

i do it so often, i don't even know i'm doing it anymore. and then i realize i'm doing it and i feel like some sort of a social perv. i go back to what i was doing before -- reading that book, watching my laundry spin dry -- but the damage is done. what i sensed and felt and heard, it's in my matrix. and when i'm writing songs, it seeps out of me like sweat and falls all over what i'm doing. these things, they just can't be helped.

lately, i find myself playing the role of agony aunt and spending a great deal of time listening to the tragedy in other people's love lives, probably because i don't really have any in my own -- and admittedly, a lot of that angst ends up in my lyrics. not that i haven't had my feelings crunched down upon and spat back in my face. it's been awhile but trust me, i've got a long, long memory. nevertheless. when this thing finally gets laid out the way i want it to be, sounding pristine and filled with sorrow and heartache and sunshine, i wouldn't be surprised at all if a few hurting souls i know come and find me and tap me on the shoulder to let me know that they hear themselves and their situation in what i came up with and they're honored/insulted/pissed/relieved/pleased at the result. i don't care. i'll never tell what's mine and what isn't.

if i could, i'd release everything all at once -- the jazz, the country, the black rock, the bizarre folkie stuff -- but i don't have the money to promote each one simultaneously. and i'm not about to release anything without promoting it properly. releasing a cd without promoting it is like trying to drive down the highway in a really beautiful car that's on its rims. it'll move, i guess. but you won't go that fast and you won't get that far.

i'm all caught up in the lyrics, really letting stories and highly visual phrases and colorful bits of feeling and afterglow spin right out of the heart of me. and in the studio, it's about mood and feeling and tone. guitar playing is secondary, this time around. shredding can happen some other time. later, on that black rock album i'm dreaming up.

music ketchup
queen esther, music
the danelectro guitar that randy polumbo gifted me
spontaneously out of nowhere just like that
just got overhauled at gotham guitar works by alan michie,
my self-described scottish guitar minion.
i'll pick it up after thanksgiving.
i have a feeling i'll be flush by then.

i just updated the myspace page for my jazz music
with a cool photo of jc and j walter and me
and scribbled a bit in the blog -
"Queen Esther and The Hot Five"
catchy, huh.

looks like i'll be at the player's club for two gigs at the end of the year:
new year's eve eve with my own group in the lounge
and new year's eve with jc hopkins biggish band.

thinking seriously about joining the player's club -
but that's another conversation.
the housework never ends.
neither does guitar practice
steam room/day spa visit
or the next big chicken recipe.

i'm in the process of looking for a radio promoter and publicist.
actually, i think i found one but i don't want to jump up and down about it yet.
that would feel too good to be true.

oh, geez. what else?
i'm flying the japanese flag.


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