Interview With: Albert and Gage, guests for Strings on Grass November 13, 2015 RSVP here.
Interview Conducted By: Will Taylor
Will: Christine Albert & Chris Gage are appearing with Strings Attached at our Strings on Grass series, coming up on November 13th—after being rescheduled two times because of rain in Austin!—So, we’re here to talk a little bit about the two of them, and some questions that I have pulled together, as well as some reflections that they have on working with Strings Attached. I hope this interview will get people excited about the show.
The special thing about Strings Attached and our concerts, is that we have this one-time experience when we get together with singer-songwriters, and reimagine their music… sometimes to an extreme level. For instance, when we do Beatles tribute shows, we might reimagine the music in a completely different way than the original versions. Along with our ever popular cover shows, we love to collaborate with singer-songwriters in the Austin area,—like Eliza Gilkyson, Slaid Cleaves—which was the original direction our band took in the beginning, years ago. We bring to the table, certain things like jazz improvisation, or different vocal sounds, adding some color to the arrangements. We try to create a unique experience for people to come out and be intrigued. That’s the first thing that I wanted to talk about. If I remember correctly, we had a show about 10-15 years ago.
Chris: Has is been that long?
Christine: Yeah, I think so, I think it has.
Will: Yeah, and it was at Saint David’s church, which is a beautiful space. Yeah, it’s a distant memory for me. I’m curious to see if you remember anything specifically about working with us… or anything in general about what we do. So yeah, my first question is: Was there anything notable about that performance?
Chris: I just remember being thrilled to hear our songs envisioned by someone else. Like you said, everyone has a different take on music. Some people come from a more classical background, and some people have a little more jazz. You know, I do this gig at Strange Brew every week where I’m playing with somebody different every each time… it’s a lot of time the same songs, but each person is going to bring something different to it. And what you do with Strings Attached, is real inventive. And plus, you have a core group of people that do this a lot. And so they know what you’re thinking when you write an arrangement, and they can help you bring it to life. It’s just real exciting for me.
Christine: Yeah, I think every artist has sort of a fantasy of hearing their music with strings or with an orchestra… more arranged in that way. For me, it brings an elegance to the music that we try to bring that to our performances at Don’s Depot. It’s not always there.
Chris: Well, I turn on the string machine sometimes. (Christine laughs.)
Christine: So especially at Saint Davids, and in that beautiful environment, it was almost mystical. And I imagine the Strings on Grass is a different kind of environment, but also brings a sort of natural, organic beauty to it that really compliments the music.
Will: Exactly! Yes, that’s the same approach that we were taking with the original Strings Attached series in the church; was that context where people walk into it. It’s not just about hearing the music directly, but it’s the environment that you’re in. It really affects the emotional receiving of the song, or the music. So same thing, you’re right! With Strings on Grass, we’re in this beautiful, gorgeous yard with large trees, and there’s lights shining in the trees, along with the stars above. There’s something about hearing music in a natural setting. It’s very different from Saint David’s, but I think it’s very natural. You know, for instance, Karen and I love Kerrville (The folk festival). So there’s a little bit of a being-around-the-campfire feeling, and we really enjoy it. So people are coming for the experience. The full on music in nature experience. So we look forward to hearing your songs. It makes me think, are there in nature songs in there? (Will chuckles.) Maybe we should pick out a song that’s fitting for that setting.
Christine: Yeah, we’ll have to look at that.
Chris: How many of these have you done, Will?
Will: We’ve been doing them for about a year, just over a year. So we’re probably at 12 or 13.
Chris: Oh cool!
Will: We’ve done one every month, and we take off the winter months, obviously. And yeah, I’m really enjoying putting these shows on. People enjoy bringing kids, but still are able to really enjoy the music. Some outdoor events, you know, people start to talk, and then the music becomes the background to conversations. So we’re still trying to bring over that respect for listening, which is what we started with at Saint David’s.
Chris: Well we’re really looking forward to it.
Will: That sounds great. So, okay, onto the other questions. There’s an artist whom I really respect, and I have been studying his book called Effortless Mastery. You may have heard about it when I sent you the list of questions. Kenny Warner talks about the idea of just getting out of the way of yourself and your ability to grow and thrive as an artist. It has a relation to mindfulness work, meditation, you know, the idea of just letting things happen. Like the song “Let it Be” that the Beatles wrote. So I’ve been very attracted to this idea of getting out of the way of myself, as a performer, as a creative person. There’s this quote in here, I’ll read it quickly: “Ultimately, musicians of the world must come to realize their potential of their calling. Like Shamans, we may service healers, metaphysicians, inciters, exciters, spiritual guides, and sources of inspiration. So if the musician is illuminated from within, he becomes a lamp that lights other lamps.” And it goes on. I was very attracted to that idea, and the fact that we could relate this to you, for instance how you have the swan songs organization. How do you resonate with this?
Christine: Well, most of it does. In fact, all of that resonates with me especially because I do practice mindfulness meditation. Recently my mind has been very busy because I’m so active in other things. So I’m in a different mindset most of the day, and then I get to the performance, walk onstage, and start singing. When I find my mind racing, and I’m not really present, I actually close my eyes and practice meditation, in between the lines of the song. That’s by focusing on my breath, and being in the moment, it brings me back to why I’m there, and then it starts to become a gift to me when I can really get out of my own way. It’s certainly hard for me, because there’s so much going on in my life and in my brain. But that’s the technique that I use. And I have my own personal prayer that I wrote years and years ago that I say. For instance, every morning, or especially before a performance. One of the phrases in there is: “My life is a vehicle for divine love, and my music is the instrument of expression.” So I believe that the quote you just read resonates with me because of what I say to myself.
Will: Mhm. And so you still find that you have to remind yourself when you get up there on stage.
Christine: Totally. It doesn’t come naturally, but the more you do it, the more years you sing, as a performer, and I think just as a person who’s connected to why I do this, it’s obvious to me when I’m not connected, I’m like whoops! oops! oops! It’s kind of like when you’re meditating, and your thoughts start to take off, and thinking, and you have to bring it back to the breath. When I’m doing that on stage, I realize “Oh, I am really not here. I just created an agenda in my mind while I’m trying to sing a song. “ And that of course is not going to work for the entire performance. And I think I can feel it when I shift back. And I think Chris can feel it too, he’s like “okay! you’re here with me now.” He knows exactly when I’m not. And even if I’m singing all of the right notes, and getting all of the lyrics, it’s obvious when I’m not present.”
Chris: Well it’s amazing how much you can think about while you play. And I look at it this way: We spend our whole lives learning, and preparing, but when you step on stage, and that one person has come because they love your music, or they need something out of that evening, well then it’s time to just let it seep out, explode out. And I know that when I totally forget that I’m taking a piano solo, for example, if I just let it fly, those are the ones that get responded to the most. Not if I’m trying to play like Fats Waller, or if I’m trying to make sure that my left hand is in time, you know. If I just explode, those are the ones that people react to.
Will: I was going to ask you a question, related to that comment, actually. What does a great solo feel like, or look like to you? And part of what you’re saying, is you’re so out of the way, you really don’t even notice it. So that’s what you’re saying?
Chris: Well it’s come from years of doing it, you know. There are solos that musicians have a term for, that you’re very aware of. It’s called noodling. And it’s just you know what notes go on the scale, and so you play some. But to me, a solo is like a whole song itself. It’s a whole competition. It has a beginning, and it has a rise, and it has to resolve itself at just the right time. It has to be emotional, it has to be clever at times, you know, but it more than anything, it has to just fit the mood of the piece that you’re in.
Will: So I’ve got a little follow up question with something related to that. I’ve always wondered: For me, I’ve studied the jazz traditional method, and if you look at Charlie Parker, or even Louis Armstrong, when they take a solo, they take certain approaches. With Louis, he takes the melodic approach, always relating his solo to the main melody. Whereas Charlie Parker and some of those main cats, you know, the bee-boppers, completely are going way off. So how much are you actually improvising? Do you consciously go off completely from the melody? Or do you generally always try to work off of the melody?
Chris: You know, in the studio, when I’m trying to get something out of a soloist, I refer to it as “melody plus”. Which is an odd thing.
Gage: I don’t like to get too far away from the melody. And I’m totally happy with a baritone guitar solo that plays the melody, I think that’s beautiful. One of the coolest solos on record—and this also relates to you mentioning “What’s your favorite song?”—there’s a Glenn Campbell recording of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman”. And when the solo comes in, its just the melody, and it is so satisfying to hear that. It’s better than any hot lick that could ever have been picked by Tommy Tedesco, or another guitar player. It’s just the melody. (Chris starts humming.) And it’s just gorgeous. So there’s a lot of songs that I will just play the melody, and others, “melody plus”, as I call it. You’ve got to sneak off and do something exciting, two-thirds of the way through. Bring it back to the home base at the end of a solo.
Will: So it’s like those little shuttle inflections on the melody that make it your own. It really brings it into the moment. This particular melody you’re talking about, he pretty much states it the way it is?
Chris & Christine: Yeah.
Will: Nice. Okay, this is from a musician standpoint. I’m always interested to hear other musicians’ approach to that. Because the jazz players sometimes will be like: “Oh, well that’s boring. I don’t want to hear the melody over and over and over again.” But then if I listen to some folk or pop records, that’s all they do! And it’s like you said, it’s actually very pleasing to hear the melody. I don’t want to get too far off on that, but I’ve come from a jazz position, and then for the last 15-20 years have been around people like Eliza, and you guys, and been pulled back toward “this”, kind of stating simplicity, and roots music. And so it’s an interesting journey for me to get back to being grounded; what naturally comes up as opposed to—. You know as you were talking about earlier, I’ve got this classical background, but I’ve spent a lot of times in the last 25 years just coming back to the roots music. Which is an oral tradition, it’s not a written tradition. So I love it. I love staying with the melody.
Christine: It’s interesting, as a singer, I’ve found, that because I’m playing with so many different players now at Mystery Monday, (Monday nights at El Mercado) lead players jump up there without hearing most of the songs we’re doing. And so I’m really struck by how a soloist impacts the way I sing, and what I get from that and the way we interact. Chris was saying there’s a beginning, a middle, a rise and end, and really the whole solo can be a mess, but if you end it in a way that really leads into what I’m about to say or sing, I’m always like “Yes that was awesome!” There’s something about setting up what the singer’s about to do next that is part of the role of the solo. If it’s a certain kind of solo, I bring that excitement and that energy, or that tenderness or that folk. Whatever it is, it so compliments what the singer is about to do. And feeds into it. So I really appreciate that.
Chris: Well and I think that’s the role of the soloist… especially in a vocal group. The role is to not draw the attention away from the song, not to be all “Look at me look at what I can do!” That’s when they’re not considerate of the melody, or the vocalist, that’s about to come back and deliver the song. And it has to relate to the song itself. I’m a jazz fan, and I love the older stuff. I used to love the Miles Davis Quintet records, and I would just get lost in them because half the time I couldn’t follow what they were doing. On a heart-level, it doesn’t get me, but just washing through my brain, and giving me exciting musical experiences it does that. But on a heart-level, I would much rather just hear a great country song, actually. I’d rather hear Lefty Frizzell sing about forgetting to shave that day.
Will: Yeah, I get that. And from working with singer-songwriters for the last 15-20 years, I enjoy the sideman aspect. I enjoy the simple art of laying out and finding where to fill, to compliment the song. Because from my standpoint, a great song exists with simply the melody and the lyrics. Even without a rhythm part, you can just sing it a cappella . So then therefore everything that I’m bringing to the table has got to be supportive. Essentially, I’m not really needed. So I’ve got to find this beautiful space where I can just slide my creativity in, and so I’ve really enjoyed that, because I originally came from playing instrumental jazz. In that, i was playing all of the material. What I’m trying to do is bring what I’m learning from this—playing with singer-songwriters—back to the instrumental music. Bring the heart back.
Chris: And that’s exactly right. And when Christine and I do a show, and we have a new musician with us, including y’all, we always say, find your spots, but don’t forget, we do this all the time without you. You know, it’s all there. It just needs a little spice and seasoning.
Will: Exactly, okay now to the next question. That was good, nice organic flow. So, do you have a preferred question?
Chris: Well you asked what we do on date nights. We went to see the Martian in 3-D the other night. That was a good date.
Christine: Yeah, at the Alamo. We actually don’t get many date nights, we’re just always so busy. We play so many weekly things. He plays every Sunday morning at Riverbend, and we both play Mondays at different venues. He plays every Wednesday, we’re almost always working on weekends, and we spend a lot of time doing studio sessions during the day. So date night, usually we opt for a movie or if we have a night off, we always want to be with our kids, and grandchildren, so we do family dinners a lot. That’s our indulgent time is to get the entire family over, and cook together. And they’re all great cooks, so I get to take advantage of that, because I’m not. (Laughs.) Our evenings are late. Chris doesn’t usually come out of the studio, and I’m not usually home until 9:30 or 10, so we have late evenings together. That’s our down time too, if we’re not working.
Will: Yeah, with Karen and I, I always dreamed of having a musical family. We kind of do, like with Coralina, we have some music that we play with her. But it’s not like there’s music being played all the time in the house, because we try to take a break from that. Is that kind of what it looks like in your household?
Chris: Yeah, we actually have one album that we play every time we cook, and it’s Paolo Conte’s greatest hits! It’s all in Italian, and we all sing along, even though we don’t know the words. (Christine chuckles.) But it’s just the perfect kitchen music.
Will: That’s funny.
Christine: Yeah you had asked also about practicing, and what that looks like. And we really don’t, we really don’t practice. When we have new songs, we sort of learn them as we go on stage. Although, I need practice more than Chris does, I’ll say. I’ll be like, “We really need to sit down and go over this, if it’s a new one that we’ve released.” I really need to get it in my brain, and go over what the arrangement is. But quite often it’s just as we go because we’re playing so much. And then there’s so much business to take care of during the day. And with all of my nonprofit work, I’m just like an office person everyday. It’s just regular office hours and then I play gigs.
Will: Oh, I’ve got a great follow up question to this. It’ll help me to hear your answer to this, because I myself spend so much time taking care of my business as well. And in the Western world, we’re so focused on time, and doing. And after all, we’re actually not “human doings”, we’re “human beings”. Sometimes I just think: Okay, well if I didn’t have to do all of those business oriented tasks, what would you do if you had more time available. Let’s say if you had four more hours in the day, is there anything you’d want to do in regards to practicing and taking your music to the next level?
Christine: If it was musically, I would relearn to play the piano, and to write with it. I enjoy writing with piano, but I hardly ever do it. Piano was actually my first instrument as a child, but I haven’t really played in two years. So if I really was going to spend indulgent time on the music part, I would reconnect with piano, and I would get my flute fixed, because my flute has such old pads, that I can’t event play it. I would revive my flute because I also used to play that for many years. And I love to play it I just haven’t put the focus onto it. And just creatively in general, I really want to write more books and essays. I would spend more time writing, which means you have to spend a lot of time unplugged, in solitude. Nature helps me, gardening helps me, to get into that space. And I am so far from that right now.
Chris: Yeah we don’t have time for that right now. I haven’t written a song in a long time because I’m so busy working on other people’s songs. All day every day. And then I take 30 minutes to try to think about what I’m going to do for example, I’ve got a show tonight at 6 o’clock with a guitar player I’ve never played with. And I’ve got to think about what might work between us when I don’t have even a clue of what his style is. So I’ll take some time and put a little thought into that.
Christine: And he’s in the studio now working on someone else’s music all afternoon.
Chris: Right, now if I had four hours a day, I’m sure I would be composing, and working on some tracks for t.v placement, and writing a new song for Albert and Gage.
Will: Nice, well this was great. We took a little extra time, so thank you guys. I wish we could go on, I just love it. I’m trying to do these little interviews to create some interesting content where it’s from the point of view of us as musicians. I think it could create some interesting conversations. And this could be content that you could have up for years. This feels kind of like as if I was Terry Gross, except for Will Taylor with Fresh Air. So I appreciate y’all for being guinea pigs for my new idea, I really appreciate it. I enjoyed you guys.
Christine: Thank you, it was a good conversation.
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