Interviews

OnAxis Music digs deep with interviews and here are some prime examples. Interviews and in-depth articles can set your band or business apart and let fans and customers learn about you. Interviews are totally cool and preserve moments in time. Below are three examples as we interview Todd Murray (Songwriter), Deborah Bulgrin (Vocalist, Instructor) and Bob Shiel (Songwriter).

The Road Underneath Headlight Sonata
Article/Interview with Sincerely, Iris

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Todd Murray, a Chicago singer-songwriter, is not the first to be inspired by Jeff Buckley — but he may well be the first to relate that inspiration to sensitivity and balance. His stage moniker, Sincerely, Iris, came about as a reflection of these views on music. "[Iris] is sort of feminine, I kind of like that aspect. I really like girl singers like Billie Holiday and I like Jeff Buckley and how he had that feminine aspect to his voice. That's what music is to me — the harder stuff and the more sensitive stuff all in one."

Murray’s most recent collection, Headlight Sonata, stands out among the acoustic masses thanks to a full-house hand of solid folk-pop songwriting and a shim of shoulder-shakin’ blues. Like Buckley, Murray studied jazz, and his main instruments are guitar and voice. His approach to arranging and producing his music is much more considered than most folk acts. Murray was schooled in Kentucky and Colorado but he is not a jazz player or a theory guy. He opposed learning music note for note, yet eagerly applied jazz’s "crazy chords and weird progressions” to his songwriting.

"I remember being in class and instead of studying I'd go write a song," says Murray. He also found ways to compose songs while working odd jobs. As a front desk clerk at a hotel in Ohio, he used the quiet late night shift to jot down lyrics. One summer, while serving as a general labor "grunt," he would sneak away to his car to write down some lyrics before getting back to mowing the lawn.

On Headlight Sonata, Sincerely, Iris fills out Murray’s solo live act with layers of guitar lines, bass, and drums. Murray also uses effects pedals and different tracking techniques to obtain an array of guitar sounds. For example, what sounds like mandolin on his track “Boys, Girls and Fools” is actually a quickly-strummed guitar double tracked with the guitar tuned an octave or a third higher.

One of his catchiest tunes is "Cemetery Blues." The imagery, hook, and lyrics come together gracefully. "At the beginning of the song he [the narrator] is kind of sad about death, he's not ready for it,” says Murray. “After complications with money or relationships — all the things of life in general — by the time you get a little older, you're like, 'Bring it on, I'm ready, I've had enough.'"

Murray says tugging on heart strings and connecting with people are the most important things when writing songs or approaching music. "I always want to write lyrics and approach a song from a personal level. It's always personal for me," shares Murray, "as opposed to making sure it has an amazing hook or that it's super-catchy."

Murray is from a small town outside Cincinnati populated by farmers. When he was getting started in music over ten years ago, it was not unusual to drive up to an hour to attend an open mike. He traditionally rejected the "country" aspect of the area but has grown to respect it more. "My grandpa was a farmer and he would go out and do all that himself," says Murray. "I compare it to what I'm doing: He started a farm from nothing, I'm starting a music career from nothing.

The spirit of Sincerely, Iris is more John Muir than John Denver. Muir is a true historical figure (1838–1914) with few if any equals. He is America's foremost naturalist who walked thousands of miles throughout the U.S. — most through terrain untainted by humankind — and wrote with great detail his experiences with nature. As a preservationist and writer, he was the steward of the National Parks and founded the Sierra Club. Like Muir, Murray comes across as a person able to take life in stride and make some interesting observations along the way. He began taking his music more seriously during his time in Colorado, which may have had "something to do with the mountains," he says. Murray describes the vivid color and detail he saw while in the Pacific Northwest with acute observation and awareness of nature. He also penned songs late at night while sitting on the dock of a pond, deep in the Ohio woods where his Dad lives.

Most of Murray’s observations are delivered on his rustic jumbo Seagull guitar, but other tools in his shed include a Fender Strat and a vintage Silvertone guitar that his mom discovered while cleaning a house. It's too fragile for live shows, but Murray values the vintage flavor. Staying true to his rustic roots, Murray writes at home, after everyone’s asleep, in a large closet where he’s nailed old blankets to the walls and ceiling. He finds chords and begins mumbling into the mike of a Zoom 8track recorder. "Sometimes I'll actually go back and decipher the mumbling and that will be the beginning lyrics of the song," says Murray, who edits the tracks in Cakewalk. "That's probably why I still use the 8-track because it will fit in the closet." With an eye to the imagery and variety in his songs, this blanketed laboratory could be compared to the space created by early photographers who covered their camera and themselves with a heavy cloth while preparing the negative for their next picture. Their actions were mysterious, yet the results were undeniable.

One of Murray’s trump cards in songwriting and arranging is variety. He says, "I try to change it up, I try not to repeat myself at all really." His catalog varies from riff-based rock tunes to folk-blues vamps. Early on, he was influenced by a lot of bands, such as Tool or Smashing Pumpkins, which was mirrored in his songs. Now, he is listening to more singer-songwriters, such as Rufus Wainwright, and this comes through in his latest effort.

For this recent CD, Murray handled his own production and arrangement with the exception of vocals and piano. For these he chose Handwritten Recording, a Chicago studio that was offering recording time for a benefit CD for breast cancer. The experience went well and Murray decided to complete vocal and piano tracking there.

When approaching arrangements, Murray says, "Sometimes I hear it in my head but usually it's not like that, it's not genius stuff...it's just trying and failing and deleting it and trying it again and eventually something will stick or click." For his tracking, he always begins with guitar, then adds additional instrumentation and vocal.

Murray has support people that he trusts to help him on his musical journey, such as Colorado-based musician Judith Avers. "I always go to her when I am doubting myself or doubting my music," Murray says, "She has been a big influence. Murray's cousin Jay Patton provided certain effect pedals manufactured through his Ohio-based business PEEB Sound Effect. Patton also played guitar and bass on a few of the album's tracks, and was the person who initially taught Murray to play guitar. He also values the support of his parents and girlfriend.

Work on Sincerely, Iris’s fifth album is a testament to Murray’s tenacity. "The first couple years I was feeling awful [playing live], it was pretty scary. I just kept doing it for some reason. I have no idea why I put myself through that, it was the most nerve-wracking thing ever. Eventually...I guess I could see that at the end of the road it would be easier. Now it's a lot easier." Nonetheless, he's taking extra steps on this album to make it a cohesive success. "I really want to fine tune the lyrics this time, make sure they are telling good stories. I'm definitely trying to not really road test them, but 'gig-test' them a little bit to see if people react to them. If there's a song people are snoring through, I'll take it back and woodshed it."

While many folk acts are looking back at their roots, Sincerely, Iris is looking forward. The music is smooth yet rumbles with energy, like an engine under the hood of a car on a good road trip. At live shows the music is vital and the energy coming off the guitar and through the air is palpable — it stands out as folk music that clearly exists in the "now." And now is the time to check him out, so have a listen at www.myspace.com/sincerelyiris, find him on Facebook, and buy the CD "Headlight Sonata."

Publication Date: 02/15/201
See this article in its original context: Chicago 6 Corners
Special thanks to Chicago 6 Corners staff for sharing their knowledge and editing expertise.

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Songs in the Key of Knowledge
A Talk with Deborah Bulgrin, Vocal Instructor

What might Yogi Tea, Yoga, and your determination have in common? They can all put you on the path to becoming a better singer.

“We as singers (need to) make sure we're healthy like anyone else. Since we use our bodies, it's especially important,” says Deborah Bulgrin, vocal instructor of fifteen years. Her experience and thoughts on the art of singing are helping vocal students of all levels in Chicago. As a teacher, her specialty is an intuitive, custom approach.

Bulgrin offers plenty of tips from her deep knowledge of how to keep your voice healthy. Singers rely on their body to put musical ideas across, says Bulgrin. The body is there to serve the score and the text. The ultimate goal is to have the ease and freedom to interpret the piece with all its nuances. How do we gain that ease and freedom?

One important first step is to relieve tension. This includes any kind of tension: such as in your body, face, jaw, tongue, neck, but could be anywhere. Most of this can be achieved through good posture, says Deborah. Jaw tension is a special case that can be alleviated separately, mostly by being conscious of keeping the jaw limber.

Yogi tea is great for singers, adds Deborah, including Breathe Deep and Throat Care. Also try Traditional Medicinals brand, with Breathe Easy and Throat Coat. All of these teas are helpful to the respiratory system. Green tea is also a good choice, as it is rich with anti-oxidants and good for immune system. Lemon and honey can be added to taste.

“We as singers are always looking for ways to have healthier respiratory systems,” says Deborah.

In addition to tea, there are some other products that you may not be aware of that are helpful to singers.

Deborah is a fan of “Alkolol”- a natural mucous solvent for use as a gargle or with a Netti Pot. Deborah says, “I love this product. I know lots of singers do not know about it. It thins out mucous if there's a lot. It brings it up to get it out of the way. I learned about it from an EMT in New York, yet I do not run into anyone that knows about it including doctors."

Deborah stresses humidity is vital. Add humidity to your home or work environment with a humidifier. Assure it is clean and bacteria-free. Humidity is important for singers and often overlooked.

There are also ways to stay hydrated from the inside out-- drink lots of liquids, including water. Although it may be difficult depending on your lifestyle, lower or eliminate caffeine intake. This could be achieved by cutting back on coffee or energy drinks.

Stretching and yoga can also be useful for general flexibility and posture. Yoga is also especially good because it includes breathing. Yoga-like breathing can help place a singer's body and mind at ease.

If you have a sore throat or find it difficult to talk, it's likely best to not sing. Especially, if you have laryngitis, don't force yourself to sing or talk. In fact, do not even whisper. Deborah says staying silent is the best anecdote so that your vocal chords can recover.

In addition to being a vocal instructor, Deborah currently performs with The Chamber Ensemble. As a vocal instructor she has taught in New York and Chicago. She says the active theater scene in Chicago has been a source of students for her, and singers come to her when they are seeking to brush up for an audition or enhance their skills.

Sometimes determination is just as important, if not more important, than talent. For example, one student came with a skill set so basic he could not match a pitch with his voice. As Deborah hummed or played a note on the piano, he could not recreate the pitch. Some teachers might actually turn a vocal student away if this was the case. However, Deborah was determined to create a path for this singer if they were taking the initiative to take lessons and said to herself, “I'm going to find a way”.

Working with the student slowly, progress began. Deborah led him through humming, then adding vowel sounds, and eventually words. On his end, he practiced religiously from the CDs Deborah recorded of the lessons and even practiced at the Harold Washington Library on his lunch breaks. One year later, he was able to sing a complete song, a German art song by Schubert. This was a huge achievement.

When Deborah was a vocal student, a teacher noticed her operatic voice. He encouraged her to explore this. One philosophy he shared was to first identify your strengths as a singer and then listen to other singers that have those strengths.

It's important to not only be a singer, but a listener. Anyone that has been carried away by a singer's performance, knows that singers, if even for a brief moment, make life more expressive, more beautiful.

Some of Deborah's favorite singers you may want to enjoy include:

Bryn Terfel – He sings British and English music including Mozart, Leider, Vaughner, and musical theater. A great interpreter, every word has color, meaning and variety. It's rare to find a singer that can do the variety of styles he takes on. He's even been known to tap dance-- to top it off, he even whistles beautifully!

Cecilia Bartoli – She's not only a singer, but also has fine musicianship. She's always exploring things that other people don't do; things you never hear, such as a recent CD of works by Castrati. When she sings, she understands everything on the page.

Both of the above vocalists are singers and musicians. Deborah encourages this: “Singers can be not as educated as they should be. They may be blessed with a good voice but not other things.
Some are good but don't have the education behind them”. Learning from these two singer/musicians could be a step in the right direction.

When working on a song, the goal is put your individual stamp on it, says Deborah.

One singer that achieves this is Ella Fitzgerald. Deborah saw her on a PBS special where jazz musicians and the jazz singer were throwing musical lines back and forth during a performance. The musicians would play a line, and then Fitzgerald would imitate it with her voice. As the phrases, played by sax or trumpet for example, became more complex, she still met them. Even if they improvised or turned it around or did long runs, she got everything perfect- even the sound of the instrument was mimicked by her voice. “I thought she was good before, but when I saw that [footage]I knew she was great."

Deborah also looks to Pavarotti, who she notes has “incredible technique and his breath control is unreal. I've never seen a jaw so loose- breath just flows through. Some people say he doesn't move around on stage enough- but look at his face- every expression and every word- you don't need anything else. He lifts an eyebrow for example, such a detail, there's a lot of expression [in his face]."

A variety of factors go into who your favorite singers may be, but one thing is certain: with vocal health guidance, inspiration, and determination, your vocal skills can grow.

Take care of your voice and explore it. One day you might be among someone's favorite singers. The best way to develop your voice is with a vocal instructor that can create custom exercises that fit your style and skills.

Deborah Bulgrin vocal lessons are provided throughout the week on a flexible schedule. Lessons are held at two locations: downtown Chicago at The Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Ave. and in a comfortable home environment, a short walk from the Argyle Red Line CTA stop. For more information, contact Deborah by visiting her online today at www.deborahbulgrin.com.

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Interview with Bob Shiel

“Half Measures Avail Nothing” Spreads Hope 

100% Full of Music

Photobucketby Hannah Frank with additions by Bob Shiel

This CD, “Half Measures Avail Nothing” is more than a collection of 18 songs-- it's a gift of creativity from the heart. A percentage of proceeds benefit The Mankind Project Chicago, an international network of personal development programs for adult men. Shiel has been involved for over twenty years and is on the board. The CD also benefits the Alano Club of the North Side of Chicago, which offers addiction recovery services. Shiel already donates annually to these organizations. 

The original songs share touches of 60's country folk music as well as poetic rock and roll, bluegrass, gospel and Dylan-like commentary. Hypnotic psychedelic memories are punctuated with clear-headed blues and comfortable reminiscing with lilting Spanish rhythms. Production and song styles vary yet maintain a message of peace, journey and renewal. Like real life, it includes a gamut of rough and smooth edges.

As a young man, Shiel appreciated the non-Western culture of Micronesia, a group of small islands where Shiel served as a Peace Corps volunteer. He was the only non-native sharing an island with about 225 people who ebbed and flowed with relaxed, slow lives full of farming, fishing, cooking, church-going and making the most out of what they had. Islanders used fishing line as guitar strings. Shiel performed folk music on birthdays and at weddings and even funerals for the natives. He believes it “got him in touch with indigenous people and mother earth.” He saw and helped the islanders build a humble church up from the ground with concrete mixed with sand from their Pacific beaches. 

Shiel took this spirit of resourcefulness to the making of his album. Using new skills with digital recording, and tapping thirty years of writing songs, the tunes reflect on topics that likewise seem foreign to American life, but maybe shouldn't be so odd: brotherhood, praying, friendship and unity. 

This is peppered with more “hardcore” experiences facing the modern world, and how people handle it-- references to smoking a skinny, drinking gin all night or making a commitment to pray for Barack Obama. There are also nods to 20th century figureheads like Muddy Waters and Elmore James with a tongue-in-cheek line, “hoping to get lucky, want to make a killin', trying to be cool like Elvis and Bob Dylan.” 

All the songs are not about Shiel, but about people he's met on his path, ranging from a relaxing Latin love ballad for Marianela from Peru, a girl whose “eyes ain’t blue”, to a 12-bar blues with pounding organ about a fellow teaching comrade at Truman College, where Shiel has taught ESL to immigrants who want to go to college since 1987, in Earl Silbar's Rag, about a Jewish man who grew up amidst social inequities on the south side of Chicago and went on to a lifetime of devotion to working class and union causes.

Shiel had been writing songs for years and this CD was the next logical step after hooking up with a group of supportive artists, The Mens Art Forum, and gaining confidence in his skills as he explored digital recording. He decided to contribute proceeds to the Mankind Project and the Alano Club. Humble in person, Shiel says as a drug and alcohol addict, he would be dead if it were not for these groups. 

Most songs are laced with imagery that is post-sobriety. Of track 2 Angels In The Morning he says, “its [a] dark...hellish song...that's what life on drugs and alcohol was for me….but the song is about hope.” Getting sober was like “coming out of pain and darkness...coming back to life from the dead,” shares Shiel. Track 13 What I Pray is “literally my prayer every time I pick up my pipe and pray...a lot of this is very spiritual,” says Shiel, who also teaches yoga and is steeped in Native American spirituality. The title “Half Measures Avail Nothing” is a gentle reminder to give one hundred percent. 

Shiel is healing and with this CD, gives back. He gives back in full measure to life for what he has been given by his parents Josephine and John, the fellowship of men, women, and recovering addicts, and the 20th century musicians who make him tick. Half Measures Avail Nothing, indeed.

Purchase CD Online or In Person
Visit: http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/BobShiel for digital purchasing
Email: bobshiel@hotmail.com for hard disk copies