Did you know that Austin is a Live Music Capital of the World? This became an official slogan of the city since it had been found out that it had more live music venues per capita than in any other place in the world! Live music is everywhere – in every bar, restaurant, and even in the airport!
It was one of those cosy events hosted at a backyard of a private house when I discovered a truly extraordinary band. For the whole hour I was totally consumed by their music, wishing it would never end. Thoughtful lyrics, virtuosity of playing the instruments, and soulful singing introduced me to a completely new aspect of American culture.
To learn more about folk American music, I met with Silas Lowe whose concert I saw that night. During our interesting conversation I learned about
- bluegrass music and challenges of being a bluegrass musician;
- the process of composing music and writing lyrics;
- how to innovate playing within traditional canons framework;
- the role of music in stories of struggles;
- personal story of Silas and his father Roy Michaels, who was a famous musician and a founding member of Cat Mother and The All Night Newsboys in ‘60s New York. A story that resulted in creation of Silas’ new album “Wandering Father, Forgotten Son”.
How did you get into music?
American music is a very interesting way of learning about American history and a way that American cultures intersected. So when I was in my twenties doing liberal arts I was easily excited. Music has so many facets both with its natural complexity and how it can express things, but also socio-historical facets. I was given tools at an early age to do a lot of analytical thought and early American music just provided a ton of opportunity for that kind of exploration.
And acoustic music is really great. Because of the lack of technology there is something special about it, something that you can do on a street corner or at somebody’s house.
What you do today requires a lot of skills: playing instrument, composing music, writing lyrics. How did you discover all those talents?
I started playing when I was 20. I had a bunch of friends in college who felt kind of the same about obscure, weird music and we spent about two years drinking whiskey in our dorm rooms and playing very bad acoustic music. They are all very bright musicians too.
But it wasn’t until I moved in Austin and I ended up in a band that was touring a lot when I started to compose consistently.
Composing music seems to be a very mysterious process. How does it happen?
American traditional music is pretty simple in a lot of ways. You can make it complicated but it’s pretty finite amount of cords typically used. And the note selection you have is fairly regimented as well. There are a lot of guidelines. You start off with a pretty good framework. Some of the songs I write are like western swing or country jazz. So the colors that you put in those cords are sort of predetermined in many ways and that kind of leads where your melody and feel of the phrases are going to go.
How is it possible to learn to play the guitar by yourself?
The process is you get a CD of a band you like, and you sit there and try to play with the guitar player. Then you figure out how to do it. Any recording you have can become an instructional thing. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of work but I taught myself in that way.
I also play with such gifted musicians all the time. I learn from the people around me by watching how they do it.
“We live in a quite disconnected society and music is how I’m trying to connect my community”.
What is a genre of music that you play?
Bluegrass is a music I really fell in love at the beginning. It requires a degree of technical proficiency and is complex in its band arrangements. It also is written in some pretty conservative social traditions that are not the ones I necessary subscribe to.
So composition is great because what it allows me to do is to bridge all the genres of music that I’ve fallen in love with over the years like blues, country, western swing and construct a landscape to perform all the music that I like.
Does the fact that you are trying to fall outside from traditional canons make you unique? Or are there other similar bands?
Yes, there are other bands. A music that I am playing is called Americana. And Americana can be everything from a very bad band to really amazingly wonderful modern sounding people who have deep roots in tradition.
The thing which I am really trying to do is to be very careful and consciousness about my writing. Language is really important to me. I feel that a lot of people who are writing are not super concerned with word choice or taking chances to be modern.
Best example for me is Robbie Fulks who is complete genius guitar player and writer. At the beginning of his career he was writing in the traditional canon’s framework. In his fifties he is taking a lot of chances to innovate by doing internal rhyme schemes, really surprising imagery and making statements that are challenging to people who grew up only listening to a traditional stuff. He is very modern in his writing.
What is your way to innovate?
For example, I was using country music and bluegrass which, like I said, was very conservative, very religious, not necessarily welcoming alternative life-styles for some of my progressive political songs. That’s been fun.
They say that the biggest difference between bluegrass songs is words. Where do you get inspiration for writing such thoughtful lyrics?
I work very hard on that. I collect ideas throughout the course of the week. If I hear an idea, if I catch a phrase, or read a book, I write it down in my spreadsheet. And then I find a day when I sit down and work on these ideas.
It’s been a big evolution for me.
I consider myself an ardent socialist. More like in Scandinavian or Canadian model, not obviously in oppressive way. So I started writing political music, songs about industrial disasters, immigration reform, different issues.
For example, when Regan was a president from 1980 to 1988. his belief was that if you cut taxes for wealthy then they will create a lot of wealth and this wealth will eventually make its way to a middle class. My experience and experience of many people of my generation is that it did not work in a way he intended. So I wrote a song about that. And what I wrote was really true for me, it’s stuff I really believe in.
I feel I’m more in self-reflecting phase now, writing about my life. I had a friend from high school who grew up with depression. She actually killed herself by walking in front of the train this summer. So I wrote song about that, because I know a lot of people whose internal valuation, the way they see themselves, does not reflect how everybody else sees them. This is what I was trying to express in my song.
“It’s really cool to compose something that has an effect on people”.
Do you see any solution in connecting the way people see themselves and how others see them?
Community seems important. We live in a quite disconnected society and music is how I’m trying to connect my community.
People need to be more empathetic. In my everyday job I am a public school teacher for four year olds so for me compassion is an everyday exercise, cause kids don’t always have the best strategies to have their needs met. Sometimes they act out or hit or say unkind things or take. And I think adults do that too. Most people who behaved poorly on any level are doing so because they are scared or unhappy and the biggest thing is to give people the ability to work through things in a kind and compassion way.
Empathy is what we should really focus on in our culture.
You mentioned that during college time you were interested in stories of struggles, like revolution, Nazism, and also in conflict and oppression. What are the roots of such interest?
I was raised by hippies. I grew up in Northern California for the first eight years in the redwoods around industrial marijuana farming up there. So I grew up in that environment. My half-sister’s mother was like second mother to me. She worked for political theater troupe called San Francisco Mime Troupe and they were really important political theater company in the United States. They did a show during the first Intifada, which was the conflict between Israel and Palestine. They went to Israel and Palestine and did a show about how both sides were the same people in many ways – they were all Semitic people, they were all from Middle East and they were all fighting over a small plot of land and everybody was getting hurt. They did brave art. They went there and they performed this very politically charged play with the tanks on the streets.
So I grew up with people like that, who did art and did political art and they did it in situations that took courage. This gave me a sense of strong social justice. My mom was a social worker too working with people with autism.
So adults around me inspired me to find that important.
“I think I couldn’t write good songs in a different style or even if I could there is a saying “don’t get famous doing something that you really hate””.
Your new album is called “Wandering Father, Forgotten Son”. What is a story behind it?
My father Roy Michaels was a musician. When I was two years old he went to Thailand, he left my mother. They were never married. I kind of always grew up with a spectrum of his legacy as a musician. He was pretty successful. There is a musician Jimi Hendrix and he opened 40 shows for him. He was really at some pivotal points with some very pivotal people in American rock and folk rock scene in 1960s and 70s.
And then I moved to Austin and we got to know each other and became friends. I could appreciate him and understand more the decisions that he made. I ended up getting a huge extended family. My half-sister, her mom and stepdad, her 94 year old Greek grandmother is my grandmother. And I realized that my father missed out more than I did, cause he didn’t get to have this wonderful big family.
In about two years after me moving here to Austin we found out that he had a cancer. So I helped my father die, to move from this world to the next. And this was a good way for me to get closer. In four years I thought it would be cool to record half my songs and half his and do conversation between us. I love his writing and he was a great singer. He was wonderful writer and wrote in different genres but mainly in rock -n-roll. So the idea was to take rock-n-roll songs and transpose them in old time and blues and more acoustic sounds which was really fun. It took about a year a half to make this music and I think it looks pretty cool. It has a lot of texture and tells a dynamic story.
What is a challenge in being a bluegrass musician?
I write relatively challenging material, novelty stuff which is off color. I think I couldn’t write good songs in a different style or even if I could there is a saying “don’t get famous doing something that you really hate”.
I can write a song which could totally take off and then next 30 years I would play what I don’t like. Sounds miserable too. Music is too important to not do it authentically and honestly. There is not much money in the kind of music I like to play anyways and I don’t want to do it to make money, but I want to achieve my goal, my success.
How do you define success?
I would like to be able to play music consistently and make it a majority of my income some day; get to play cool gigs and play festivals with musicians that I respect; get to hang out and play music with people who I admire and whose music inspires me.
And it doesn’t take a lot of money to make a success. I could make a lot less as a teacher and still feel very successful doing what I like around people who I respected.
It’s really cool to compose something that has an effect on people.
About the author:
Oxana believes that every person’s life can make an intriguing story for a book which can teach a lot of wisdom. Life in Russia, England, France, Hungary, USA and lots of travelling around the continents introduced her to exceptional personalities. She loves to share stories about people and destinations which bring new ideas and help to find a way to your true self. This is why she started her blog “In search of the genuine”