Category Archives: For the love of writing

High and Mighty Low: An interview with the band

fingerI was asked today why music plays such a big role in my fiction writing, and I remembered an interview I did for Mixtape Methodology with the band High and Mighty Low while researching and writing my debut novel RADIO HEAD.  The band covered The Beatles’ iconic song Blackbird, and it got me thinking about how a single song can leave an indelible mark on our lives, just as a good book might. Please read on and share the song that’s your jam.

A Brief Examination of High and Mighty Low’s Blackbird
*as published in Mixtape Methodology

What’s your jam? Maybe you heard your latest fave last night at the club. Or is your best-loved song an old favorite? Many music fans create playlists or vinyl collections featuring songs marking a significant time, or a rite of passage. The beginning of a relationship. Or its end. A song played on repeat in the privacy of headphones or on your morning commute is, for that moment, yours alone. What you listen to forms a lens, calibrating your worldview. When one powerful song becomes “my jam,” it’s the manifestation of your own anthem.

Singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler says Fake Plastic Trees, a song from Radiohead’s The Bends album, marked a musically significant point in her life. “The Bends came out in 1995, and I was 14 and just starting to learn the guitar.” Nadler wanted to sing Fake Plastic Trees; “It was the first time I really successfully played barre chords,” she said. “The Bends, along with [Nirvana’s] In Utero, and even [Hole’s] Live Through This, these were albums that soundtracked the teenage years for me.”

It’s kind of freakish to think about the ingredients that go into an original song. Assuming the band gets along and every member contributes his or her best material, a song comprises the amalgam of the group’s talent. It conveys an image and philosophy using lyrics, and an arrangement of notes to form a melody that carries its own story. A song sets a tone, and illustrates an atmosphere, combining instruments that both harmonize and counter. Arguably, a song is only an idea, rhetoric perhaps, until it is performed. Musicians and singers come to the mic with a personal aesthetic, an inborn message and style, and the restless desire to share their creation with an audience of listeners. The final production includes the input of accompanying musicians, producers, and audio engineers. And possibly Yoko Ono types.

But what about when a band chooses to cover another performer’s song, recording and releasing it alongside the group’s own original offerings? What’s the significance, a shoutout back to the original song-writer? Or perhaps it’s a revelation, a keepsake or a snapshot holding a truth about the performer covering it.

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana once remarked, “When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band. Or at least in a Pixies cover band.”

Like all music fans, musicians are drawn to songs that mattered to them, for whatever reason. Maybe their favorite marks a milestone. Maybe it gashed a deep wound leaving a lifelong scar, rendering that chosen song a souvenir that must be shared. A covered a song allows listeners to know a given performer on a deeper level than even his or her own creations might reveal. Call it trickle-down mastery, the artists who came before established and reinforced the foundation of modern music. A student’s mastery of an instrument or a vocal style is influenced by the teachers who lead the way, who held the light on the path. For professional performers, those teachers were often their favorite songs.

Los Angeles-based rock band High and Mighty Low is gaining a strong following with their debut album, Bones. The group is comprised of John DiBiase (guitar, vocals), Matt Boehm (guitar), Jeff Mallow (guitar), Scott Schneider (drums), and Rick Zaccaro (bass). Bones covers a broad field of guitar-heavy alternative rock, from the howling guitars featured in Taken to the blazing and energetic, The Tragedies We Hold, to a melodic nod to popular music with, Half The Time.

High and Mighty Low chose to release its debut album with a bonus track, a cover of The Beatles’ Blackbird. A song you’ve likely loved too at some point, Blackbird is listed among the top ten most covered songs, from a wide spectrum of performers in several music categories, from folk-infused Sarah McLachlan to an extraordinary arrangement by Alicia Keys, with only her piano as accompaniment. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl have often favored Blackbird at live shows.

Blackbird first appeared on The Beatles (also referred to as the White Album). Written and originally performed as a solo effort by Paul McCartney, Blackbird is credited nonetheless a Lennon-McCartney collaboration.

Blackbird is frankly a weird outtake from High and Mighty Low’s overall sound esthetic. Frontman John DiBiase offered some insight about why the band selected that particular song. Blackbird was recorded on June 11, 1968 (released November 25, 1968), decades before any member of the band was born. How does Blackbird speak for High and Mighty Low, building a bridge beyond the lyrics, melodies, and arrangements they’ve crafted for themselves?

“I love how stripped down that song is,” says DiBiase. “And the guitar playing is obviously fantastic by McCartney.” Stripping down seems to be a hot topic for the DiBiase and the band. The word “bones” happens to appear in a few tracks he wrote “Considering how stripped down some of the album is, I just felt Bones was an appropriate title,” DiBiase added.

According to Rolling Stone magazine, McCartney recorded Blackbird on his own. George Harrison and Ringo Starr were across the pond in California, and John Lennon was recording the song Revolution 9 in another studio. When they were school boys, Paul McCartney and George Harrison attempted to learn a Johann Sebastian Bach piece called Bourrée in E Minor, a song, like Nadler’s Fake Plastic Trees, which marked a significant period in their lives, and on the journey to learning their craft. It became, essentially, their jam. McCartney carried that musical souvenir into adulthood. He said that Blackbird’s fingerpicked guitar lines, written at his Scotland farm, were based on Bach’s Bourrée in E minor.

“Hearing him tap his foot is something,” says DiBiase, referring to the distinctive background sound many believed was merely a metronome. Audio engineer Geoff Emerick mic’d up Paul McCartney’s foot tapping, and added recordings of a singing male blackbird. McCartney told Emerick he wanted the song, “to sound as if he were singing it outdoors.” Emerick said, “Then let’s do it outdoors.” Blackbird was recorded outside Abbey Road Studios’ echo chamber.

The whole production flows in the vein of a busking folk singer in the decade of discontent. The lyrics portray McCartney’s response to US race relations in the 1960s. Sir Paul was in good company. Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez were also driving forces for grass roots change. But what is it about Blackbird that has endured, enough to inspire a bunch of L.A. dudes in their 20s to resurrect the old favorite?

“The song itself is both simple and complex at the same time,” explains DiBiase, “which is difficult to pull off. And the lyrics and melody are as good as it gets.”

Aside from its significant and long-standing message, John DiBiase says the song “is fun to play, on or off stage. I really do love it.” McCartney would have to agree. Paul McCartney felt compelled to perform it for fans camped outside his house. His inspiration? It was the first night his future wife Linda Eastman stayed overnight. Perhaps that’s what transforms a good song to a classic; it reminds you of a time you’ll never forget.

BLACKBIRD

Written by Paul McCartney, John Lennon
Copyright: Sony/ATV Tunes LLC

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Fun fact: “Blackbird” is one of the top ten most recorded covers of all time

Hear Paul McCartney’s Blackbird 

Because it’s nearly impossible to choose only one favorite, the author invites music fans and musicians alike to send their top ten all-time favorite songs to the RADIO HEAD book Fan Playlists page, here. Your top ten matters, share it with the world.

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Writer love: 2nd Teen Story Slam was amazing

Last November, a small circle of writers and I tried something daring. We asked local teens to come out and read something they’d written to a live audience. It could be a poem, a confession, a chapter from a novel in progress, or a short story. The uber-talented (and literary award-winning!) teens in our after school program weren’t so sure about standing in front of a bunch of strangers, but a handful signed up. We thought we’d have an intimate circle of intrepid readers, and we were cool with that. Well, our literary event, Teen Story Slam, WENT OFF! We packed a giant house wall to wall,  on the night of the World Series no less. It was an historic outpouring of enthusiasm for the spoken word. Naturally, the students begged us to do it again.
With the support of Island Cool Frozen Yogurt, the Kitsap Regional Library, and the Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network, we threw another lit party, and packed another venue. The stories were outstanding!
As a teen writing mentor, I’m so thankful to each teen for making this special event happen–again. It gives me a such a warm heart to see these young women and men choose to come out with their parents and friends and share their creativity.
The peer support was overwhelming. Local teens and their friends came early and grabbed the couches and floor space directly in front of the mic. They demonstrated such love, encouragement and acceptance of one another’s words and efforts. Wow! I’m just so thankful for them and for our Teen Story Slam team of organizers. It’s a privilege to share these kids’ writing journeys. Teen Story Slam is good for the heart!

Teen writing co-mentor Margaret Nevinski said, “What a wonderful evening! Our teens are so incredible. So wonderful to see families and other teen supporters show up. These community events are so cool.” There were teens who came to listen but not participate. With the encouragement of friends and the support of a rapt audience, a few pulled up stories on their phones and took to the mic for an impromptu reading. “Nick F. decided to read because his friends did,” Margaret noted. “So proud of our teens.”

Will there be a Teen Story Slam 3? Definitely! We will return in the fall to Westside Pizza for another slam. If you’re considering fun ways to raise funds for non-profit programming, I’d be happy to provide info about organizing your own Story Slam. Just comment below!

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Our 2nd Teen Story Slam is Coming This Spring!

teenstoryslamApril17The teen writers asked for it, so we’re bringing it back! On April 20, 2017, the Teen Story Slam returns. This time, we’re taking over Island Cool, the huge, popular fro-yo restaurant in Lynwood Village on Bainbridge Island.

Teen creative writers in grades 7-12 are invited to step up to the mic to read their own prose for 5 minutes. Anything goes: a short story, a scene from your novel or screenplay, poetry, or wild and wacky true stories. Just keep it PG, please. Every writer who participates gets prize. No competition, no memorization, just pure storytelling awesomeness. In partnership with Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network (BARN), the Kitsap Regional Library, and Island Cool Frozen Yogurt, benefits from the event will support our Teen Writers Workshop after school writing program, and Teen Creative Writing Summer Camp. (More info to come on the camp. We’re going even bigger and brighter this year!)

Beloved Bainbridge High School English teacher Noah Barfield will serve as master of ceremonies. Mr. Barfield is known in the community for his achievements as a playwright, and among his students as a comedian.

At the inaugural Teen Story Slam we had 23 intrepid writers who kept the standing-room-only audience rapt. Will you share your magical words with us in April?

WHEN: Thursday, April 20th, from 6:30 – 8:30 pm (Island Cool has offered to keep the party going if stories remain to be told, but you must sign up!)

WHERE: Island Cool Frozen Yogurt, 4642 Lynwood Center Rd, NE, Bainbridge Island 98110

SIGN UP online here, at the Reference Desk at the Bainbridge Library, or by calling 206-842-4162.

Registration is required to participate. Family and friends are welcome to come cheer on the writers! Donations will support the Teen Writers Workshop at Bainbridge Public Library.

*I co-facilitate a free Teen Writers Workshop with author Margaret Nevinski, MFA. Students meet for the Workshop on the 2nd Thursday of every month during the school year. We also host a week-long Teen Creative Writing Summer Camp each summer that is free to writers in grades 7-12.

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Party for the Oscars – Presented my book!

What an amazing weekend! I had the honor of presenting RADIO HEAD to Oscar nominees, actors, recording artists and press at a pre-Oscar Awards party at the W Hotel in Hollywood! I met some fabulous people, from the legendary Maria Conchita Alonso, to up and coming actors who score roles pretty much everywhere – hi, Austin Mincks and Bill Parks! As a Middle Grade writer and fangirl, I was thrilled to meet Dee Wallace, star of the show, Just Add Magic. My sons and I binge-watch the excellent MG-targeted Amazon series. Thanks to visual artist and dear friend Jason Mascow for taking photos and going above and beyond.
(Love these? Check out my pics from the Grammy Awards party at REN Gallery!)

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Book event! I presented my novel at the Grammy Awards

Who is the ideal audience for a novel offering an insider’s look at the dark reality of the LA rock music scene? Music fans in LA, of course! To celebrate the 2017 Grammy Awards, I had the honor of presenting my debut book, Radio Head, to Grammy nominees, recording artists, music press, producers, and a fascinating group of actors, fashion designers, artists and models. Hosted by European TV host Nana Churcher, the high energy event was held at REN Gallery in downtown Los Angeles on the eve of the awards ceremony. My pen name appeared on the backdrop of the red carpet – how cool is that?! The DJ kept the music pumping, and the vibe was positive. My dear frifaveend, artist Jason Mascow, took all these great pics. Cheers to all the amazing talent I had the pleasure of meeting. Here are some of my favorite pics from the party.

 

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Read on: Recommended media for fans of Ancient Rome …and opera

nero

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus

This is a collection in progress, a heartfelt, juicy and rewarding list of the pieces of research bringing me great joy, inspiration and explosive insights as I attempt to write my third book, a retelling of George Frideric Handel’s Agrippina. I’ve been digging deep since last September, and as many historical fiction writers will attest, it feels as though I’ve only scraped the surface. But that is the pleasure of it, isn’t it? Our books should inspire our curiosity. If our writing bores us, we’ve lost our way. So here is my scrapbook of treasures, which I’ll update as I move forward with my novel. If you share my passion for all things Italian, please comment with your suggestions!

Books (There are many excellent books about Ancient Rome. The following are those I find myself returning to repeatedly while I research and write:)

Agrippina: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire Author nthony A. Barrett is the go-to expert on Ancient Rome. This book is proving highly useful.

The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources There are several texts about Emperor Nero, but this guide by Anthony A. Barrett, Elaine Fantham, and John C. Yardley is, in my opinion, one of the most insightful.

The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero by Tacitus, and The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Volume 06: Nero by Suetonius can be considered “required reading,” but I do prefer texts that compare their passages, along with Dio’s, and provide commentary. (Hat tip to Anthony Barrett and Stephen Phillips.)

Veni, Vidi, Vici by Peter Jones, is an infinitely enjoyable and digestible compendium of Ancient Roman history, beginning with the Etruscans. I picked up a copy at The Coliseo when I visited last summer.

Visual Media
Agrippina A DVD of the opera starring Véronique Gens, and Philippe Jaroussky, directed by Tiziano Mancini.

Rome This HBO series is superb.It follows the story of Julius Caesar’s triumph over Pompey, and the rise of Caesar Augustus, an introduction to Marcus Agrippa, along with the an unforgettable portrayal of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. The fictional plot highlighting the friendship between two Roman soldiers creates a believable pleb view of life in Ancient Rome. It’s rumored that the period sets spanned a whopping 5 acres and that would make it one of the largest period sets ever. The joint BBC/HBO production had an estimated budget of $100,000,000. Highly recommended.

Da Vinci’s Demons This Starz series is a wonderful (extraordinarily fictional) story about Leonardo Da Vinci’s beginnings, primarily set in Florence. The acting, costumes and sets are wonderful. The view of Rome and the Vatican during the Renaissance offers an interesting counterpart to the Ancient Roman Empire. Actor Tom Riley is a compelling (and sensual) Leo.

 I, Claudius (35th Anniversary Edition). Rated one of the “100 Best TV Shows of All Time” by Time magazine, this epic BBC series spans the history of the Roman Empire from Augustus through Claudius, a stuttering scholar who learns early to play the fool and stay alive. Based on the novels by Robert Graves.

National Geographic When Rome Ruled 3-DVD Set I ordered this on my smart phone while standing in the shadow of the temple of Jupiter at the Palatino in Rome last summer. Tablets of communication have come a long way.

Music
Handel: Agrippina (3 CDs) featuring Alastair Miles, Della Jones, Derek Lee Ragin, Donna Brown, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, and Michael Chance.

YouTube: George Frideric Handel – Agrippina

Web pages
About the opera Agrippina: Wikipedia; Synopsis at About Entertainment; NPR Music;
Julia Agrippina | Roman patrician | Britannica.com
heroinesofhistory – Agrippina the Younger
How Empress Agrippina the Younger Scandalized Rome
Roman Emperors – DIR Agrippina the Younger
Women in the Roman World: Agrippina the Younger
Nero – Ancient History – HISTORY.com
Nero | Roman emperor | Britannica.com
Emperor Nero – The Roman Empire
NeroEmperor, Theater Actor, Poet – Biography.com
Nero – Ancient History Encyclopedia
Roman Emperors DIR Nero
BBC – History – Historic Figures: Nero (37 AD – 68 AD)
Nero – Citation of Nero’s homosexual relationship with Marcus Otho
Marcus Otho, Emperor of Lusitania, lover of Nero; Poppaea
Roman Emperor Claudius
Synopsis of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

Italian and Latin
Italian words we don’t use in English

palatine

One of my favorite pics from my trip

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6th Grade Shakespeare and Research for my Third Book

This fall was an exciting time of growth for my family. My oldest son graduated to middle school, and became fast friends with a wonderful, funny, creative and cool group of guys. I went back to school, too. I enrolled in the 10-week online program, Story Genius, to begin brainstorming my third book, a retelling of George Frideric Handel’s Agrippina.

As much as I love Handel’s score (well, technically, the librettist was Vincenzo Grimani) I have spent this year immersing myself in all things Ancient Rome, modern Rome, and trying to learn the language. The opera Agrippina is populated by Ancient Roman figures, including Claudius and Nero, and I’m frankly reveling in the deep and satisfying pleasure of researching a topic (and language) I am truly fascinated by. In the past, I’ve researched as necessary, and loved it because research is my idea of a good time. With my new book, as they say, it’s personal.

So, when my sixth grader balked at the idea of acting, much less Shakespeare, I agreed to volunteer for the production. One thing led to another, and suddenly I was placed in charge of designing a set that encompassed both brooding Scotland for Macbeth, and sun-swathed Rome, for Julius Caesar. (The ambitious drama teacher at my kid’s school split the 6th graders into two groups, and produced BOTH simultaneously. Yes, he is a miracle worker.)

The drama teacher said it best: “It was my hope that the main feeling the students left each day with was excitement and in the end, pride. It was very exciting to share the talent, courage, and independence these young actors possess. It is an honor to have their trust in and commitment to something that requires bravery and strength.”

My son isn’t the only one who found gems among his classmates. Several generous parents lent their time and talents (and good company) to help me create the set. I’m so proud of my son, who played King Duncan (and Duncan’s ghost) in Macbeth, and all the stellar young actors who uncovered the mysteries of Shakespearean language, and brought it to life.

What is it about seeing our children on stage that is so utterly heart-warming? Tell me about your experience in the comments. I love hearing stories about children encountering a playwright’s vision.

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