Monday, June 16, 2014

Sharing a Six Pack: Miss Shevaughn and Yuma Wray

In March this year, Miss Shevaughn & Yuma Wray (web | MS Twitter | YW Twitter) released their second album, Lean Into The Wind. The duo is a veteran of the oft-mentioned, top-of-the-line,state-of-the-art, annual, on-line music festival of all-time: Couch By Couchwest.

Disclaimer: TMC is entering his second term as Dep'ty Mayor of CXCW, but I don't have veto power. So I can promote CXCW and any of its performers without compromising my objectivity or position...I think...

The couple who began their lives in the east and south - found their way to one another in the midwest - and now call the west coast home. (Somewhere, the Mountain Time Zone is whining "but what about ME?") Their friendship evolved into a relationship. The relationship evolved into music. Music evolved into a business. And all of that stuff with love at the core evolved into a marriage in March.

Many stereotypes exist in our lives - especially about professions. Accountants are prescriptive. Engineers are rigid. IT folks are geeks. Lawyers are pricks. Musicians are free-spirits. There is likely some element of truth in all of them - as well as some variance. Well, except for lawyers - they really are all pricks.

Miss Shevaughan and Yuma Wray are free-spirited in the way they use their creativity to write songs and music, tour the country, start their gigs about the time many working stiffs are ready to hit the rack, etc. But don't understate their business acumen. They are also entrepreneurs, risk-takers, small business owners, etc. It's one thing to listen to an album and think yeah, I can dance to this. It's another thing to enjoy it AND know a bit about the blood, sweat and tears invested to make it happen. To me, that makes for a more compelling reason to purchase that type of product.

Anyway - to the band and their music...

I've had the pleasure of meeting Miss Shevaughn and Yuma Way a couple of times as they passed through Nashville. I intentionally wanted to wait until their most recent tour was completed to give them a chance to decompress from the road. Then I wanted to see if they'd be willing to provide a bit of perspective of where they've been recently - and perhaps where they're going.

I started an email conversation with the two of them and a six-pack of questions. It went a little sumpin like dis...

TMC: Let's start with some stats, some metrics. You headed east from California following your March wedding and toured until earlier this month. Any idea how many miles you put on the van during those two and a half months or so? How about the gallons of gas you needed, beers consumed, van break-ins, or photos snapped by Ben Tufts?
YW/MS: We got married on March 1st, and the first show of our honeymoon tour was March 6th. We crossed the country three times and went about 20,000 miles. That averages out to about 1,110 gallons of diesel. The odometer on our Sprinter van rolled over 100,000 miles right as we pulled off of our street in California and currently sits at just under 120,000 miles. There’s no way to know how much beer we drank, but some of our favorites were the Deschutes Brewery Fresh Squeezed IPA and the (only available in Wisconsin) NewGlarus Moon Man. We also played at High Desert Brewing in Las Cruces, New Mexico - which is pretty amazing. The van was only broken into once, but we were also rear ended the day before Miss Shevaughn’s birthday. The doors still shut and locked so we just kept on going! Ben Tufts, who plays drums for Miss Shevaughn & Yuma Wray, is one of the best iPhone photographers we've ever seen. (Ben on TwitterInstagram).
TMC: With this most recent set of shows in support of the new album (officially released by the way on March 25th, the day of your Nashville date at The Basement), what are some things the band learned about one or more of the songs during the night-after-night shows vs. how the songs were recorded?
YW: The most obvious addition to our live sound would be Derek Evry (Twitter). He didn't record any of the bass parts on the album, but he joined the band as our touring bass player just prior to us releasing Lean Into The Wind. He’s a super-talented guitarist and singer – so having him on bass and backing vocals almost seems like we might be selling him a little short of his abilities. But he’s really made us step up our game on stage. He’s a seriously intense performer, so with each passing night, both Miss Shevaughn & I found ourselves rocking out a little harder than we did the night before! And consequentially, having way more fun! All thanks to Derek.
MS: We actually toured with most of the songs on the album with Ben before recording them. We knew how much songs can change on the road, and we wanted to give them a chance to mature before we committed to recording. It’s something that we most likely won’t get a chance to do again, and it was a fun way to write. It’s not just the playing over and over again that brings new ideas into the songs, it’s the audience too. You can just become inspired suddenly and throw something out there and the response can be the determining factor in whether or not you try it again. I have to agree with Yuma too. Playing as a full band with everyone contributing and bringing new spontaneous ideas into the live show goes a long way to shape the songs. We actually brought a brand new song “Navigator” into the set a few days before tour, and it felt like we were literally writing that song over the course of the tour. 
TMC: At least two of the songs from the album - Drifter's Compass and Bleed Me - reference this life you've charted of leaving home and riding the road with your music. Describe some of the ways that work for you in writing songs as you tour.  Do you find yourselves writing songs collectively as you ride? Or do you tend to process internally a lyric, a chorus, a riff, etc. that you journal or otherwise document at another time?
YW: Here’s the really infuriating thing about being on the road – so much of your time gets spent driving, loading in, sound checking, loading out – that you don’t really get a chance to be as creative as you would like. Sure Led Zeppelin wrote “Stairway” on the tour bus. But most touring musicians get so caught up in the day-to-day logistics of travelling and playing live that we really don’t have the time to write much on the road. Right now, Miss Shevaughn & I are just off three month of hard driving and playing - and the creative ‘back-up’ is finally just beginning to abate. I’ve started at least two or three new songs in my head that are being pieced together from those lingering ideas for riffs that come to you in the early morning hours when you know you have to get out of the van, wander into the Wal-Mart that you have been sleeping in the parking lot of, and find the bathroom – AND hope it isn't closed for cleaning. The ideas that stick with me through that first-light haze are the ones that are going to make up the songs on our next album.
MS: OK, the men’s room at any given Wal-Mart is NEVER closed for cleaning, and the women’s room is closed like AT LEAST 35% of the time. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest… I think that part of the answer lies in the fact that although we’re leaving home to be on the road, every time we get back on the road it feels like coming home as well. I think that if that hadn’t been there for us the first time, we may not have continued to travel so hard. It is difficult to write on tour, but I think that the observations and the subtle feelings and thoughts that you gather as you travel, the people you meet and the histories that you learn, they become part of what you will write about next. It’s a cycle. Ideas need a chance to breathe and to come into being. And they’re all different. Some come quick, others grow slowly. For me, it seems natural to have a hibernation or a germination creatively. My mind’s not dormant. It’s just in a mode that’s taking in instead of putting out, and touring is perfect for that. Like Yuma was saying, once you get off the road so much comes spilling out that you didn't even necessarily know was in there. 

TMC: Both of you are somewhat midwesterners being from Chicago and Arkansas. The musical and lyrical content of your songs, however, is far broader than genres generally associated with those areas. Who have been your influences over the years from a musical and songwriting perspective that have guided you as you've jumped with both feet into the music biz full time?
YW: Our background/upbringing is actually a little more complex than that – but for simplicity’s sake I’ll say that I grew up travelling. Miss Shevaughn & I started the band in Chicago in 2009. So the inspiration for what we write about comes from a lifetime of rambling & exploring. But in those travels, I’ve met a few people who have influenced my approach to songwriting more than others. In 2005, when I moved to Chicago – I met a singer/songwriter/guitarist from Indiana who now lives in Austin, TX named Simon Flory – he turned me on to some rebellious country songwriters like Steve Earle and Jay Farrar (at least, when Jay was with Uncle Tupelo). At the time, Simon was playing in a shit-kicking outlaw country band called “Merle The Mule” that really expanded my horizons. Up until then, I hadn’t really stepped out of my hardcore/punk-rock comfort zone that I had grown accustomed to while living in Washington DC. I spent the entire year of 2006 hunched over my acoustic guitar, studying classic country and blues, listening, playing and writing.
MS: Don’t forget that we met at a hip-hop club. I grew up in the South. My family lives in southern Arkansas, and I mostly grew up near New Orleans. Yuma and I actually met in D.C. where we both resided for years before we met up again in Chicago. A lot of my family was really musical - bluegrass and southern gospel, Sacred Harp singing on my mom’s side and guitar picking and singing on my dad’s side. My mom played mountain dulcimer, autoharp and guitar when I was a kid. I started performing with her doing folk music mostly when I was about five. I ended up studying opera in college, but I was also really into punk and indie rock at that point. I’d have to say that our friend, Chris Darby, a singer songwriter out of Missouri, influenced our decision to get on the road. He hiked the whole Appalachian Trail and then went on a self-booked tour for 6 months. When Yuma and I started playing together, we realized we were a lot more serious about playing music full time than a lot of other people we’d been playing with. So we did a little two week East Coast tour just to test the waters. As we were driving home to Chicago, I was thinking, “in a year we’ll be on the road full time”. Yuma didn’t know it yet, but my mind was made up. In 2011 we got rid of our apartment and lived out of our car while playing as many live shows as we could.

TMC: You serve as your own management team - recording and producing, booking gigs, taking care of travel logistics, etc. Many bands do some of that but not necessarily all of that - and certainly it would seem rare to do with tour dates sprinkled from coast to coast and north to south. Describe some of the benefits and challenges of being a rock-and-roll band while also being a deliberate business person.
YW: Don’t take this the wrong way, but I would LOVE to not have to do any of the “business” stuff that we are currently embroiled in as “DIY” musicians. Booking sucks. Tour managing sucks. Self-promotion sucks. Most musicians are not wired to be business-oriented – but the sad fact is that we are trying to ‘come up’ in an era where there are lots of other performers travelling the same road that we are. And if we want to keep moving – we better know how to pull over and fix the occasional flat tire on our own instead of relying on someone else to do it for us.

There are some doors that are not open to us yet because we represent ourselves instead of having a large, corporate artist management company promoting us. But hopefully, when we do get that ‘lucky break’ and have the opportunity to work with people who can promote us far beyond our own abilities to do so, we are not going to get ‘taken for a ride’. I’m confident that, even though we may have to work a little harder and longer than some musicians out there, we are never going to be tripped up by some opportunistic crook looking to take advantage of under-experienced naiveté.
MS: You hear a lot about bands that just come out of nowhere and people who became famous overnight and “weren’t even trying”. I really dislike that narrative because there’s always someone who worked hard even if it was behind the scenes. I think the ‘work’ part of artistic work should be acknowledged. I like knowing what goes into all of these aspects of our job because we have a better appreciation for it and a better understanding of how everything comes together. And we do have a support team. It’s grown as we’ve gone along. We started out with us just emailing a few bloggers to send them our music and now Tony at Pavement PR has helped us with publicity for our last two albums. Lean Into The Wind came out on a Chicago label, Seven Dead Arson, that’s run by a friend of ours, as opposed to our first record, We’re From Here, which we put out totally on our own. I totally agree that I’d love to focus solely on writing and playing at some point, but I like that we’re finding people to work with who really believe in what we’re doing and whose efforts we really appreciate.
No rest for the weary. The life for this band is on the road and on the stage - and with a smile and a kind word. Be sure to find a nearby show, and buy their music and the band a drink. Beer for Yuma, tequila for Miss long as it's not Patron.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Nick Dittmeier - Light of Day

Nick Dittmeier, an Indiana songwriter, recently hit my radar with news about his new EP, Light of Day. With a listen or two, I realized I dug what he was a'sangin. His deliberate guitar picking style and use of a slide immediately caught my ear.

And when Dittmeier released a video for the title track, I knew I was on board. After all when you can get Matt Damon to jam on guitar you've got something going, right? Wait. What? Oh.

Another standout track based on insightful lyrics and some good jangly guitar work is My Grey Suit.

My favorite track from the EP is Simple As A Nod. The title alone speaks volume, but there is much more to enjoy. The song has a good dose of twang and a smidgin of a Bakersfield feel to it.

The opening to Die And Go To Shively, the 5th song from the EP, has a Jerry Reed feel and the meter of lyrics reminded me of Alabama's Dixieland Delight.

For a broader intro to Dittmeier's music, enjoy this mini-concert. The video segment opens with an intro by a mayor of some municipality.  It's clear the guy is not the mayor of Couch By Couchwest because its mayoral position is filled ably by Popa2unes.

1:15 - Coming Home Soon (3rd track from the record)
5:50 - Lay Your Trouble Down With Me (from 2013 release Extra Bitter)
9:15 - Paint My Masterpiece (Dylan / The Band cover not on album)
13:30 - I Can Sing (from Extra Bitter)
17:00 - Interview
20:00 - Angel From Montgomery (Prine cover)
24:15 - My Grey Suit
27:55 - You Don't Have To Leave The Light On For Me (from Extra Bitter)
32:10 - Die And Go To Shively
37:15 - Light of Day

Check out Nick Dittmeier on his website, Twitter, and Bandcamp.