Many filmmakers have tackled the true crime saga of the Zodiac Killer, who stalked Northern California and stole national headlines in the late '60s, but only one has been brave enough to try to face the murderer himself. That distinction belongs to Tom Hanson, an L.A. fast-food-magnate-turned-amateur-director who made his 1971 debut, The Zodiac Killer, with the express purpose of catching the actual Zodiac.
At just 21 years old, Rochester Hills-based singer-songwriter Olivia Millerschin is more prolific than many artists twice her age. She began 2016 with more than 200 concerts planned, and she says she had somewhere between 70 and 100 song ideas prepared when she went into the studio to record her excellent sophomore LP, Look Both Ways, which dropped in September.
Millerschin has expanded her local following to the national scale over the past several years, thanks to appearing as a quarter-finalist on America’s Got Talent, winning the 2014 John Lennon Songwriting Contest with her anti-romance ballad Screw Valentine’s Day, and touring internationally in support of major label artists like Teddy Geiger, Howie Day and Ryan Cabrera.
Look Both Ways follows Millerschin’s 2014 EP Over the Weather, and it’s her most accomplished record to date. Aided by guest vocalists Michael Grubbs (a.k.a. Wakey Wakey) and Sawyer Fredericks (The Voice), the 9-song set explores deeper and darker emotional territory than she has ever attempted. Musically, the record showcases not only the singer-songwriter’s keen ear for catchy hooks and clever lyrics, but also her skills as a composer. The arrangements are awash with everything from strings to synths, but every element of the production rests on Millerschin’s versatile voice and crafty melodies. Her previous accomplishments notwithstanding, Look Both Ways is sure to establish her as a major talent.
I called Millerschin, just after she wrapped up a photo shoot for Hour Detroit Magazine, to talk about her new record, her career ambitions, appearing on national television, and collaborating with high profile musicians.
Q: Having been on America’s Got Talent and having toured the country with more well known acts, in addition to performing locally, where do you feel most comfortable? Do you prefer larger audiences, or do you like playing more intimate venues?
A: I don't really know. I think a lot of people have their vision set out, and that's really great, but I've always been sort of open to everything. I've been really lucky that I've been opening for singer-songwriters who have more intimate venues that they play, and small listening rooms. I've been spoiled in that way, where I really love those. But every time I go to a big stadium concert, I really enjoy that. So I think I'm just open to making more music and reaching as many people as I can.
Q: You put college at bay to pursue music full-time. I'm curious about what your thought process was there, and if you had any fear or reluctance about making that decision.
A: I went to music school for a year and I really enjoyed it, but I found that I was learning more just studying on my own than I was in my classes. I kept having to turn down touring and other opportunities, so I decided to take the year off. I was really worried about it. I was hoping to make it a sustainable career, and I said, "I'll go back if it doesn't work out." You always worry about disappointing your family and your friends, but I took the year off and it's been nonstop ever since. So I'm very lucky that way.
Q: You also had to put off touring for a bit when you were on America's Got Talent. How did that make you feel?
A: That was weird because I love playing live more than anything. That's just where you get to connect with people in general, and you get to grow as an artist. America's Got Talent is a completely different experience than anything I've ever been a part of. It was good from the exposure standpoint, but it definitely held us back in the other aspects of our career.
Q: What did you take away from that experience?
A: It definitely made me see more of the business side of the industry, because I had always dealt with people who are just in it for the music. I was a teenager, so it opened my eyes to people who see it as a business and see you as a business, and it just made me more aware of everybody, I guess.
Q: You seem to work well under pressure, and you often put yourself in challenging situations. Where does that drive come from?
A: I feel like I was a lot better at it when I was younger, because I just like, "I'm gonna stand up on the stage and sing my songs for people. No big deal!" I didn't realize what I was actually doing. It depends on the situation. Sometimes I'm like, "I can handle this." It's just a matter of convincing yourself that you can do something, because the insecurities are what eats me alive. I've always wanted to one-up my previous accomplishment.
Q: Your new album has a very polished sound, but it also sounds strikingly intimate. How did you achieve that balance?
A: It kind of goes all over the map. I kind of write more about other people's experiences than my own. I just think it's easier to be subjective that way. I know a lot of artists write singles so they can pitch them for radio, and I've never thought about that. It's very smart as far as marketing, but my writing's always been whatever I'm seeing around me at the time. I had probably 70 to 100 songs ready for the record, and I showed them to the producers, and they liked those songs the best.
Q: Tell me about the process of recording this album. I know you did most of it in New York. How did that differ from the way you've recorded in the past?
A: My first record was self-produced in one of my friends’ studios. That was very hands-on. We were super young. I think I was 15 or 16 at the time. So we were just kind of experimenting. And the second one I didn't really have much of a hand in. This one I collaborated with two producers out of New York, and I got to really be a part of the whole process. It was my music, but I got to control where the sound went. We did one song in Detroit too, but I think it sewed the whole thing up when I was open to what they were saying, and when I could throw in, "Oh, let's keep this aspect a little more settled down."
Q: Do you have any plans to move to a bigger city to be closer to the music industry?
A: I'm living with my parents right now. I'm trying to save up to get a house or something around here. I thought about moving out to New York because when I was working on the record I was living out there, but it just doesn't make sense, and I just like Michigan so much.
Q: You have two well known guests on the album: Michael Grubbs and Sawyer Fredericks. How did you meet them and get them in the studio to sing with you?
A: Michael Grubbs is a really phenomenal songwriter. His band is Wakey Wakey. He was one of the two producers that produced the record. The song that I have him on I originally just wrote for a solo song, and he was singing some backups and I was like, "Do you want to be featured on this one?" He was really happy to do that.
Sawyer I met through a project I did for Mitch Albom. Sawyer and I are both on the soundtrack for one of Mitch's books [The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto], and we just kind of kept in touch lightly. I had this song that I really imagined a couple different voices on, but especially his. So I reached out to him, and I didn't really know what he would say, and he was like, "Absolutely!" He drove into New York, and we worked on it. I'm just really lucky [laughs].
Q: How did you come to work with Mitch Albom?
A: It came about when I was on America's Got Talent, or maybe a little before then. I was promoting a couple of different things, and I went on his radio show. I don't know how it happened, but he somehow decided that he liked me. He's been nothing but incredible. Ever since then, every time he's got a project or he's producing a movie, he'll call me and have me do something for it. He had this soundtrack for his book, and it was all these huge artists. They had Ingrid Michaelson on it, they had Tony Bennett on it. He asked me if I could just be, like, his local artist on the CD, so I did.
Q: Turning back to your new record, Long Weekend is the obvious single, but it also seems like the emotional center of the album. Where were you coming from when you wrote that?
A: That was my favorite one off the record, which is saying a lot [laughs]. Most of my music in the past has been upbeat, and part of that's just age. Of course songs I write when I'm 14 are going to be different from songs I write when I'm 20. I wrote that song not only about personal experience, but just about everybody. I think everybody has that one person that they think is going to be the one, and then they get away or something like that. That one was really tough to write. I wrote most of it in the studio, because I showed the guys the chorus of it. That was all I had written, and they were like, "You have to finish that one!" So I kind of rushed the process, but I really like that one.
Q: The record sounds very cohesive, both thematically and sonically. Was there any kind of overarching theme or concept you wanted to express?
A: I think the whole point of this record is perspective, and being able to find some good in something that's seemingly bad, or even just understanding and coming to terms with the bad. The older I've gotten, like anybody, I've experienced more not only heartbreak, but just real life experiences, and death and loss. So I felt like that stuff needed to be talked about, but it didn't necessarily need to be mourned. It needed to be discussed in a way that people could understand and relate to.
Q: What are your plans for the rest of the year, now that this record is out?
A: I'm doing some promotion for the record. I'm hoping to get it in movies and TV. I'm doing a ton of touring this year, so I haven't had much time to be writing a new record. But I'm ready to do that. After two months of living with this one, I'm like, "Oh, why not start a new one" [laughs].
Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.
Olivia Millerschin and her full band perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, December 2 at the Black Crystal Cafe, 3653 Santa Fe Trail. The show is private to registered guests. Tickets are $25, which includes complimentary hors d’oeuvres and beverages.
Grateful Dead fans (or “Deadheads”) come in more colors than a tie-dyed T-shirt — from connoisseurs who obsessively trade concert bootlegs to casual listeners who mainly admire the band’s more mainstream early albums like Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. The Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) aims to please them all.
Formed in Chicago in 1997, two years after the death of Dead lead singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia, the band channels the spirit of the Dead by recreating complete sets from throughout the legendary jam band’s history. The DSO uses period-accurate gear to emulate the original concerts’ nuances as closely as possible. Every few nights on tour they play an “elective set,” building their own unique setlists which draw from the many disparate eras of the Dead’s storied career.
True to the Dead’s spirit, the DSO is also notably prolific. To date the band has played over 2,500 concerts -- more shows than the original Dead performed in its entire 30-year run. Members of the Dead have also performed with the band throughout the years, including rhythm guitarist/singer Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh, giving the DSO implicit approval.
The DSO plays the Michigan Theater this Saturday. The band’s current lead guitarist, Jeff Mattson, formerly of The Zen Tricksters, replaced founding member John Kadlecik in 2009 when Kadlecik joined former Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh’s band Further. When we spoke with Mattson last week he declined to reveal what the group has planned for their gig in Ann Arbor. He did, however, discuss performing with founding Dead members and the role his local library had in turning him into a Deadhead.
Q: How did you first discover the Grateful Dead?
A: It goes way back. I heard "Casey Jones" on the radio, and I went to the library, of all places, and I took Workingman's Dead out. I liked what I heard, and I followed that up soon after that with American Beauty, and I really liked that. I was really taken with "Truckin'."
Then someone loaned me a reel-to-reel tape of Anthem of the Sun. It was a little too heavy for me at the time. I like it, but it just kind of scared me. I said, "Oh, I'll have to come back to this" [laughs]. Because it's just a very deep, psychedelic record. Very different than Working Man's... and American Beauty.
And then I took it from there, buying the records. I saw my first show in 1973 at Nassau Coliseum and never looked back. I was really taken when I realized how different the songs were live. That can be a nonstarter for some people, but I grew up in a household listening to jazz. My father's a jazz musician. So I just kind of got improvisation, and I just dug the fact that it was different every night.
Q: Being such a big fan, what was it like to eventually get to play with Phil Lesh many years later?
A: That was my first experience playing with any of the members of the band, so it was just like a dream almost that I never dared to dream come true. He's such an incredible musician, so to play that music with him, and to play some of the songs he wrote ... I thought, "Oh my god. I've been playing this song for years, but this is the man that wrote the song!"
I've gone on from then to have played with all of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead at one time or another. I really look at those experiences as being highlights of my musical life. There's just something so exciting to play the music you love with the people who originally created it.
Q: How did that opportunity come about?
A: Actually, it was not that many years after Jerry Garcia passed away. It was 1999, and Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995. Phil got in touch with us based on hearing -- and when I say "us," I mean me and Rob Barraco, who was my keyboard player -- my band at the time, The Zen Tricksters. He heard one of our CDs of our original music and was taken by our ability to jam in the studio. He was really impressed with that. He said in his words the Grateful Dead could never really do that, jam in the studio. I don't know if I really agree with him on that. There are some really beautiful jams on some of their studio records.
But nonetheless, when I came to play with him I don't think he realized we had been playing Grateful Dead music. It was a little too close I think, at the time, to sounding like Jerry. I think that was unnerving to him at the time. He didn't say that, although he did say things like, "Oh, you don't have to play so much like Jerry." I don't think he wanted to be perceived that he was trying to replace Jerry or something like that. Of course, I was just excited to use my acquired skill set [laughs] in that context. But it all worked out fine. I got away from playing too much like Jerry, and I guess [Lesh] was okay with it.
Q: How did experience inform your work with Dark Star Orchestra?
A: When I'm in the context of playing the Grateful Dead, I have a tendency to be a little more purist about the Jerry Garcia influence. I saw from playing with Phil that he wasn't trying to recreate that. At that time he was also singing most of the songs, so he was changing the keys on them … He was really interested in coming up with new feels for them. I saw at the time that there was a lot of room for playing with the art form, although as you mentioned that's not what we're really about in Dark Star Orchestra.
Having said that, Phil sat in with us two or three times with Dark Star. That's been a lot of fun. As has Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann and Donna Jean Godchaux. I can't speak to how much they approve of what we're doing, but I guess we got their approval by having them sit in with us.
Q: Being that Dark Star Orchestra alternates between performing recreations of specific Dead shows and also building your own sets, what can we expect when you come to Ann Arbor?
A: About every third or fourth night we do what we call an "elective set," where we make up the setlist just to help keep it fresh and hit on the songs that weren't really getting hit on the tour. Our fans come down somewhere in the middle about what they prefer. There are some people who prefer to hear us do [purist] sets, but there are some people that love that when we do elective sets that we can cross over eras, playing songs that maybe they only played in 1969, then go into a song they played in the '90s. Things that never really happened in Grateful Dead land, we can experiment with that.
Q: How much work does it take to faithfully replicate a Dead show?
A: The difference is that when we play a 1969 show, we set up the stage and we use the gear that fits, and use the arrangements as they were in 1969. Likewise, if the next night we're doing a show from the '80s, we'll have quite a different set-up, with different instruments, all the extra percussion and stuff that was part of that set-up in those years.
We still don’t do everything exactly. It would be impossible to note-for-note recreate a show every night. Even more so, it would be quite against the spirit of the music, which is to improvise in real time. We do that, of course. The arrangement and everything else might belong to the period, but the notes are our own. We're playing how we feel in the moment.
Q: What kind of feedback do you get from your fans? Do they often pick up on the nuances you try to replicate in your performances?
A: It depends on the listener. There's a whole continuum. There's people that can spit out line and verse of the setlist of a show of any particular date. It's just remarkable how detail-oriented Deadheads can be. And then there's people who might be a little more casual listeners who might be baffled that the song sounds so different from what they're used to hearing. But I think they get it that we're trying to play it like it was played in that particular era.
Steven Sonoras is a casual Dead fan and writer living in Ypsilanti.
Dark Star Orchestra performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 24 at the Michigan Theater, 602 E. Liberty St. Tickets are $25-45. Call (734) 668-8463 or (800) 745-3000, or visit the Michigan Theater’s website for more information.
The Stellars say one of their biggest problems is convincing their friends that they’re a “real band,” but their new record Interthestellars should put those concerns to rest once and for all.
The duo is comprised of University of Michigan Juniors Erez Levin and Dan Sagher, both 21. The two met at a rock summer camp in the summer of 2004, and they became best friends through middle and high school. They formally became a musical duo in summer of 2015 after their previous band, The Euphorics, broke up. Their first full-length release as The Stellars, which will debut at midnight before the band’s upcoming CD release show this Friday at the Blind Pig, is a well earned payoff to years of friendship, enthusiasm, and hard work.
The band cites a diverse range of influences, from classic rock to funk. Their first band, Soul Transit, blended their shared love Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix with Michael Jackson and James Brown. More recently, The Stellars say they’ve been listening to a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers, The 1975, The Strokes, Weezer, Green Day, and John Mayer. The Stellars also have a lovably snotty, confessional punk streak, ala The Replacements. That mode is best exemplified in the lyric, “I wrote a song in 17/8, but if it’s not 4/4 then I’m not getting laid” from “Interthestellars” charging lead-off track “Don’t Wanna Sit Around.”
Last week we chatted on the phone with Levin and Sagher about how they got their new record made, what makes their live shows stand out, and trying to break into the Detroit scene.
Q: You guys play with a full band live, but you’re essentially a duo in the studio. What’s the division of labor on the new record?
Erez: About half the songs I wrote pretty much on my own, and then Dan and I arranged together. The other half we wrote from scratch sitting in my parents' basement or on the porch. We recorded the album, I played the drums and sang and played my guitar parts from what we do live, and Dan played all the lead lines.
Dan: Our friend Sam Collins played bass. He was in The Euphorics.
Q: Who rounds out the live band?
Dan: We've been playing with a bunch of different music school musicians, but it's basically show-by-show. We see who can do what, when. We have our obvious favorites, but we take it on a show-by-show basis: Who can play with us? Usually it's a pretty consistent crew, but sometimes our favorite drummer will be busy, so we find another really talented drummer, or same with the bassists.
Q: I was struck with how clean the production is on the album, especially for a debut. Where did you record these tracks?
Dan: We recorded at the U of M studios. Duderstadt Center has a really nice couple of studios.
Erez: We also did a bit of it in the attic of my house.
Dan: Erez's house he's living in has a bunch of PAT students, which is the Performing Arts Technology program within the music school. They built their own studio in their attic. We recorded some there, but the bulk of it was recorded in the Duderstadt Center. We also have a wonderful PAT student who's been by our side since the days of The Euphorics. His name is Ben Factor. He engineered, mixed and produced our entire album.
Erez: I actually met [Factor] at my freshman orientation in 2013. We found that we have really similar taste in rock music, and he mixed our high school band. We had a recording that was as-yet unmixed, and he then went and mixed it just because we became homies. He did such good work on it. With the Euphorics we hit him up for all of it, and we still do because we just love working with him. Honestly, he's the third member of the band.
Q: He’s involved with setting up your live gigs as well, right?
Dan: He takes care of all the lights and sound at our shows. He's really into elaborate light shows.
Erez: He's inspired by the light show that the jam band Umphrey's McGee has, and he's gone and had the chance to meet the guy that does lights for Umphrey's. We're lucky to have him for that, because we know that even when we play co-op shows and house parties we can give people something a bit unique, because not every band has a professional light show behind them.
Q: What formats are you releasing the album on? And is there any plan for a tour once the record is out?
Erez: We have a CD release party at the Blind Pig on September 23, which is the release date. So that will be popping up on Spotify, Apple Music, and whatever other big internet entities for streaming there are on midnight that day. And we've got CDs, we've got some shirts, stickers. We've been going all out on the merch.
Dan: Once we get music out we're going to try to play as many shows in Southeast Michigan as we can to create a local following.
Q: How supportive has the Ann Arbor scene been to you? Do you feel you’ve built enough momentum here to move on to other cities in the region?
Erez: The Ann Arbor music scene is super important to us because we're from here. We went to Community High together. We grew up playing shows at the B-Side at the Neutral Zone, which was incredibly important to our development as musicians. As professionals we know how to carry out a live show because all through high school we were practicing at this amazing all ages venue, which we're amazingly lucky to have. We love the scene here, we're really grateful for it, and we're really excited to contribute to it.
Dan: Recently we hooked up with a business dude who's really interested in music management, and I think that's what he wants to be doing. His name is Ben Schechter He's the one who's putting on our CD release show. He's the founder of the music blog What The Sound. He wanted to reach out to bands outside of the city, outside of the state, to open for us to create relationships with bands in nearby Midwestern places.
Detroit is probably the next frontier in terms of our outreach. We know a fair amount of people in Detroit, we know some bands in Detroit. The same reason we didn't play shows last year is the same reason we haven't played in Detroit. We don't want to do a cool show in Detroit and then when people say, "Hey, can I buy an album?" it's like, "Sorry, we don't have anything for you."
Q: Let’s talk more about “Interthestellars.” You’ve been working on some of these songs for quite a while. How do you feel about the final product? Are there any tracks you’re particularly proud to finally have out there?
Dan: The thing about this album is there are so many songs that are so different than the last. I'm mostly excited for a large amount of people to get their fix from this album, because it has a little bit of something for a lot of people. It's not a one-sound album. There's no song I'm particularly excited for, in that I'm excited for all of them to be released.
Erez: I'm excited to have finally released a good version of this song "Start This Over." I wrote it in high school, and this is the third time it's been recorded, and I feel like we finally got it right with this recording. And I love that song just as much as all the others on the album, but for me that one's been around for so long and I'm finally glad that we finally get to say, "We did it. Here's the song. I can write another song now," [laughs].
Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.
The Stellars perform with The Kickstand Band and Andrew Solway ft. San Cristobal on Friday, September 23 at the Blind Pig, 208. S First St. Tickets are $7 18 and up and $10 21 and over. Call (734) 896-8555 or visit the Blind Pig’s website for more info.
After a five-year hiatus, local folk singer-songwriter Chris Bathgate is back in the national spotlight with his new EP Old Factory. The Grand Rapids-based artist was first catapulted beyond the Midwest’s music scene with his 2011 album Salt Year, but the pressures of touring led to a five-year hiatus.
Bathgate’s latest batch of songs finds him sounding refreshed and reenergized. Old Factory is more upbeat than his often melancholic earlier records, and he says he’s already hard at work on two new full-lengths—a full length solo record, and the debut LP for his collaborative project SKULLLS.
This Thursday Bathgate will bring a full band to Top of the Park (which he calls “one my favorite performance opportunities”) for a free show. I caught up with Bathgate to talk about returning from his hiatus, the influence of nature on Old Factory, and the new direction his music seems to be taking.
Q: You’ve expressed some regret for how you handled the national attention Salt Year attracted. NPR exclusively debuted a track from Old Factory, so obviously a lot of people are paying attention to you again. Did you anticipate being in this position again?
A: I didn't expect NPR to promote this when it came out. Stephen Thompson, the gentleman who I guess premiered that announcement, has been a supporter for years. It's kind of strange. He's this kind of elusive figure in my life. I won't do anything for two years, and then I'll put something out and NPR will call. It's kind of nice. I think a lot of that national exposure is credited to him maybe being on top of it.
I think it's pretty easy to forget about artists, especially when they don't do anything for two or three years, or at least they aren't in the public eye for two years. That was a pleasant surprise. It wasn't something I was shooting for, I was just excited to have music coming out. The vision had been solidified for so long, so it was nice to finally get to share those songs.
Q: Do you ever feel pressured to keep up with those expectations: to release music at a faster pace?
A: I think trying to keep up momentum is a goal, but I've never really let it bring me down. I don't know if my process allows for that kind of visibility, of putting something out every 8 to 12 months. It takes me a long time to do anything with music, and I think that's better. You can only release a record once, you know? It's better for me to take my time and make sure everything's up to snuff and everything comes out the way I want it to. The art's always been my number one priority. Maybe my process and the way the music industry works don't line up, but that's just fine with me.
Q: You had a long time to sit with the material on Old Factory before you finished the record. How do you feel about the final product?
A: I'm still making minuscule edits. When I went back I already knew exactly what I wanted to change about what I'd worked on. I re-tracked some strings and some drums. I had a long time to think about those things. If the hiatus did anything for that record, it made me see where I needed to shore some things up on my end, at least compositionally and sonically. It gave me the space to fall out of love enough with the songs to find out what core parts needed to change.
Q: Nature had a big influence on this record. Can you talk about how that manifests itself—lyrically or sonically—in these songs?
A: I guess the most obvious connection is the song Acorns and its percussion section. The inspiration for that song comes from being on my back porch while there were acorns thumping on the roof on the deck. So that's an actual sound in nature, and I think something I had been thinking about as well, conceptually. Not to sound obtuse, but it's an interesting thing to me, the seasonal downfall of acorns. It's like word painting. The percussion on that song is directly attributed to that. I didn't write it: an oak tree in my back yard did.
I was thinking about humans in nature. When do we feel a part of it? When do we feel excluded from it? When do we feel greater than it, and what really connects us? All of those things were rolling around pretty heavily in my mind when I was making that record.
Q: Old Factory sounds more urgent and uptempo than your previous records. What do you think accounts for that?
A: Before Salt Year it was pretty rare for me to play with a full band. The majority of my material is kind of lilting and slow, and somber, even. I think working with better and better studios, being more interested in percussion and drums—there's definitely a lot of rhythmic stuff happening on Old Factory—I think that's just the direction my interest has gone.
Coming out of an 8-track home bedroom folk mindset, I feel like I had never been able to get high-fidelity recordings of drums. They've been the most complicated to track coming from when I was first starting out, and as I've gotten into better and better studios I have the ability to lay down two full drum kits and have it sound really good and be able to use a lot of expensive overheads and stuff like that. I think the rhythm comes from my color palette as a composer, that I haven't been able to use those colors in that way up until recently. That expansion pack—the ability to record high-fidelity drums—comes from that. I think it's maybe me over-exercising that new ability.
Q: What can we expect from your show at Top of the Park?
You're going to hear some of the arrangements from the record slightly tweaked, with a full band with a full horn section, which I don't play every show with, but Top of the Park is one of my favorites. That's something that hasn't happened in a while. We'll have three horns as well as pedal steel. Some of my songs are really just about the arrangement, and we're going to have the capacity to flex those muscles at Top of the Park.
Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.
Chris Bathgate will play the Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s Top of the Park at 8:15 pm on Thursday, June 16. He and his band will perform on the Rackham Stage, located at 915 E Washington St. Admission is free, and venue and parking information can be found at a2sf.org.
The self-described “musical vacation” that is Grand Rapids’ The Outer Vibe will bring its neverending party to Top of The Park’s Rackham Stage for a free show this Saturday. The eclectic indie rock band — which comprises lead vocalist/guitarist Sean Zuidgeest, singer/guitarist Nick Hosford, singer/bassist Andrew Dornoff, singer/guitarist Nick Hosford, singer/trumpet player/keyboardist Lisa Kacos, and singer/drummer Noah Snyder — fuses radio friendly pop hooks with blistering surf guitar riffs, brassy orchestration, and lyrics that exude pure positivity.
The band has won friends and fans young and old alike on its most recent national tour, thanks in part to its generation-spanning influences ranging from Dick Dale and Paul Simon to Alabama Shakes and Foster the People.Trumpeter Lisa Kacos, speaking to me on the phone as the band headed out for a short East Coast tour, said even audiences unfamiliar with the group tend to get swept up in their infectious good vibes.
“Sometimes if it's our first time in a new place, I think a lot of people just kind of sit there and feel you out for a few songs, but I think I can say pretty faithfully that 100 percent of the time we have the audience up and dancing and having a great time.”
The group is currently on the road to promote a new live album, recorded this April in their hometown at the end of a three month trek across the country in support of their 2015 full-length, Full Circle. The Outer Vibe is one of the Mitt’s must-see live bands, and they promise to get the entire crowd on their feet this Saturday.
I caught up with Kacos to talk about the band’s recent travels and what fans can expect from the band going forward.
Q: Michiganders joke that it’s winter half the year here, but The Outer Vibe sounds like an endless beach party. Where does that positivity come from?
A: We write music that makes us feel how we want to feel. It's funny, a lot of people think we're from California. We've been told that quite a bit on tour. Our drummer likes to tell people that our music is a slice of paradise. We like to feel good, we like to be happy. Whether we're convincing ourselves of that because it's December in Michigan or not, we like to feel good and we want other people to feel good when they listen to our music.
Q: The Outer Vibe has earned a lot of attention for its dynamic performances. How do you sustain that level of energy night after night, for months at a time?
A: A lot of coffee [laughs]! No, it's just what we do for a living. We love music, we love putting on a live show, and we love meeting new people and new audiences all across the country, and seeing old fans too. It's a really exciting lifestyle, and it's always different, it's always changing. There's always something to look forward to.
Q: Has being on the road so much influenced your material in any way?
A: We are absolutely influenced by our travels, all of our experiences together. It's all about your relationships with the people you meet and living life to the fullest, we feel. We've made all kinds of great friends across the country, and it's very inspiring. I think that plays a big role in our writing.
Q: You have a live record coming out this summer, recorded at The Intersection in Grand Rapids at the end of your most recent national tour. What made that night so special that you decided to release it as an album?
A: We called it a homecoming concert, because we'd been on tour for three months covering the bulk of the United States, pretty much from Michigan straight down to Florida, and pretty much everything West. We saw the Pacific and the Atlantic, and we were right by the Canadian border and right by the border of Mexico. We covered a lot of ground, and we were gone a long time.
We decided to have a big homecoming concert in Grand Rapids because we missed our friends and family and we wanted to party with West Michigan. We just made it a really big thing. There were a lot of people there, and we were feeling really good about our live set. We'd played sixty concerts, so we figured it would be a good time to make a recording.
Q: The producer you worked with on Full Circle, Brad Dollar, has worked with some really big names in the past. What kind of influence did he have on the sound of the record?
A: Brad is great. We were on the same page, and he loves capturing a live, organic sound like we were after for a record. He's super enthusiastic. He was really good at reminding us how important it is to be ourselves, dig deep within, and write music that we love. I think that's going to stick with us as we work in the future.
Full Circle was a great album for our band. That was the first one with Noah, our drummer, so that was kind of a fresh start for us. We had a whole bunch of new music and we were deciding who wanted to be at that time. That album's a pretty good representation of our sound, so we're taking some of those sounds and using that as a jumping off point.
Q: What's next for the band?
A: We're writing all the time. We're also going to be touring a lot this summer. We kind of do both at once. We are looking to make an E.P. We're always working on our sound. We're always trying to be creative and push ourselves to create more great songs.
I think what we've been talking about doing is more of the things that really make our band The Outer Vibe, really utilizing the things that make us special. Like Nick's' guitar style is pretty particular to Nick. He's a classically trained guy with a master's degree in guitar performance, and he's pretty skilled, so we want to make sure he gets to play his guitar in a way that's unique to him. And my trumpet's a little bit different than most bands that have trumpet. And our rhythm section, the drums and bass, are just working the groove and making people feel good and dance. And I think Shaun’s voice is pretty recognizable. We're taking everything we like about our group and honing that in.
Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.
The Outer Vibe will play the Rackham Stage at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival at 10:45 pm on Friday, June 10. The Rackham Stage is located at Top of the Park at 915 E Washington St. Admission is free, and venue and parking information can be found at a2sf.org.
The Cinetopia International Film Festival, now in its fifth year, has never failed to live up to its name. But this year’s lineup is fit to surpass every other international film festival in the Midwest. Spanning numerous venues throughout Detroit and Ann Arbor over the next two weeks, Cinetopia will host 55 of the most exciting independent films that have screened at Sundance, Cannes, SXSW, and more. From narrative feature films to shorts, documentaries, and animated features, Cinetopia promises the cream of this year’s worldwide film festival crop.
This year’s programming features new offerings from established talent—including features starring Penelope Cruz and Viggo Mortensen, as well as Werner Herzog’s latest documentary—in addition to work from lesser-known talent, like Grand Rapids’ Joel Potrykus (writer/director of last year’s Buzzard) and L.A.’s Will Allen, whose buzzed-about new film Holy Hell examines his youth spent in a spiritual cult.
Cinetopia will also present several rare Disney screenings—Bambi and Fantasia are among them, both hosted by Leonard Maltin—outdoor screenings at Ann Arbor Summer Fest and the Detroit Institute of Art, and a selection of the finest Arab films on the festival circuit.
Michigan Theater CEO and Cinetopia founder Russ Collins offered some advice for navigating the festival’s vast offerings, suggesting, “Instead of picking out a whole bunch of films you want to see day after day after day, pick a few and set aside as many days as you can afford to go to the festival. Take a vacation in your own hometown.” His personal suggestions include the wacky Chinese musical Johnnie To's Office, the New Zealand comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Girls Lost, a film adapted from a Swedish young adult novel which he says is a favorite among Cinetopia’s programmers.
Though every film at Cinetopia has played another prominent film festival in the last year or so, Collins says each film isn’t guaranteed to please. He hopes festival-goers will embrace the element of surprise and try something outside of their comfort zones. He also notes that Cinetopia is one of the rare festivals that offers a stipend to its participating filmmakers, instead of making its money off of submission fees like, say, Sundance, which receives thousands of hopeful entries each year.
"I'm not promising that everyone's going to love every film that we show, but every film that we show has been vetted by other festivals,” Collins says. “We watched 450 films to come up with our 55 films on the program. We thought we could deliver a better quality international film festival by not having to try to adjudicate 4,000 films. We can benefit the filmmakers and the audience by working it this way."
Even given Collins’ suggestions, parsing out Cinetopia’s massive line-up is still a daunting task. Here are five films to consider to get you started, some of which I’ve seen and others that I’ve read about over the last year and am excited to finally see playing in my hometown.
English Language Fiction "> NR "> 82 min">
Grand Rapids filmmaker Joel Potrykus might finally find the larger audience he deserves with his latest film, about a young hermit who tries to summon Satan with a chemistry set in his backwoods trailer. Potrykus’s three previous films—the so-called Animal Trilogy—also center on outcasts compelled by destructive urges. His debut short Coyote is a minimalist werewolf movie about a junkie struggling to keep up with his addiction; his feature length debut Ape concerns a failed stand-up comedian who finds relief in pyromania; and last year’s excellent Buzzard follows follows a frustrated temp worker who pilfers money from his employer and turns a Nintendo Power Glove into a deadly weapon.
Just as his protagonists are simultaneously reprehensible and strangely likable, Potrykus’s films have a low key charm you can’t look away from, even when you’re horrified by the action onscreen. The Alchemist Cookbook is just as challenging and idiosyncratic as Potrykus’s other work to date. Not quite a horror film and not exactly a comedy, it’s loosely plotted but never aimless, and it’s totally unlike any other film playing at Cinetopia or elsewhere. In short: It’s the work of a promising young director at the peak of his powers.
The Alchemist Cookbook will screen at College for Creative Studies on Friday June 3 at 9:30 p.m., and the Michigan Theater on Wednesday June 8 at 9:30 p.m. Director/screenwriter Joel Potrykus will participate in a discussion following the opening night screening.
English Language Fiction "> NR "> 90 min">
Writer/director Stephen Dunn’s feature debut Closet Monster won Best Canadian Feature Film at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival for, “...its confidence and invention in tackling the pain and yearning of the first love and coming of age of a young gay man in Newfoundland.” That’s no small honor, and no small feat given the surprising scarcity of earnest, relatable queer characters in film and television today.
American Crime’s Connor Jessup stars as Oscar Madly, a troubled teen who longs to leave his abusive home life behind for his dream of becoming a movie make-up artist. Oscar’s saving grace is his creativity, which manifests itself on screen with visual panache thanks to Dunn’s inventive direction. Oh, and Isabella Rossellini voices Oscar’s pet hamster and main confidant, Buffy. What more could you ask for?
Closet Monster plays at Cinema Detroit Saturday June 4 at 7 p.m. and The State Theatre on Friday June 10 at 7:15 p.m.
Documentary "> R "> 107 min">
Brian De Palma is one of the most distinctive directors of the last five decades, if not one of the most revered, but his career has nearly as many downs as ups. The man behind classics like Carrie, Scarface, and The Untouchables is also responsible for bombs like Snake Eyes and Bonfire of the Vanities, but he’s never lost his trademark voyeuristic style.
De Palma finally gets to tell his own story in this new documentary from Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha) and Jake Paltrow (The Good Night, Young Ones). De Palma sits down for a fireside chat and tells the tale of his rise from low budget hopeful to underrated elder statesman. This isn’t your standard congratulatory, talking head ridden retrospective: De Palma’s is the only voice present, and no subject—be it his controversial depictions of women, or his films’ over-the-top violence—is off limits.
De Palma screens at the Detroit Film Theater on Sunday June 5 at 1:15 p.m.
Music/Concert "> 79 min "> NR">
Iggy Pop has hinted that his current tour will likely be his last. If you missed the godfather of punk’s historic return to Detroit in April, this film of his 2015 performance at Baloise Session in Basel, Switzerland (where he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award) is the next best thing. Nothing can compare with seeing Pop twist and flail his wiry 69-year-old frame in person, but Iggy Pop: Live in Basel 2015 captures the wild energy of one of rock’s most outrageous artists going out on a high note. The sprightly sextuagenarian blasts through an 80-minute set that balances crowd-pleasers like “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “Lust For Life” with deep cuts like “Five Foot One” and “Mass Production.”
Iggy Pop: Live in Basel 2015 plays at the Detroit Film Theatre on Sunday June 5 at 7 p.m. and at the Michigan Theater on Sunday June 12 at 7 p.m.
Documentary "> NR "> 98 min">
In the last decade Werner Herzog has primarily trained his efforts on documentaries, and in that time the German auteur has tackled subjects as diverse as death row (Into the Abyss), ancient cave paintings (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) the dangers of texting while driving (From One Second to the Next), and the notorious bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell (Grizzly Man).
If those films have any one theme in common, it’s an urging to question the murky territory between perception and reality. It’s no surprise, then, that his his latest film, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World examines the origins and implications of the most revolutionary and potentially catastrophic invention of the last century: the Internet.
With his devastating wit and sobering philosophical observations in full force, Lo and Behold claims not only to tell the story of how the World Wide Web came to be, but also to humanize the technology we rely on to automate our lives.
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connect World plays at the Detroit Film Theatre on Sunday June 5 at 4 p.m., the State Theatre on Saturday June 11 at 9:30 p.m., and the Henry Ford on Sunday June 12 at 5 p.m.
Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.
Cinetopia International Film Festival runs June 3-12 in Detroit, Dearborn, Bloomfield Township, and Ann Arbor. Detroit screenings will take place at The Redford Theatre, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Cinema Detroit, the College for Creative Studies, the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts and The N’Nambi Center for Contemporary Art. Dearborn locations include The Arab American National Museum and The Henry Ford Giant Screen Experience. The Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township will host several films.
The festival will shift its focus to Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater and the State Theatre June 9-12. Ticket info, showtimes, and screening locations are available online.
20-year-old Holland-based singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Olivia Mainville is busier than most musicians ten years her senior. In the past two years she played with the folk-rock band Watching for Foxes, collaborated with The Appleseed Collective and The Ragbirds, toured as a solo artist supporting Connecticut’s Caravan of Thieves, released a debut EP that was mixed in Nashville, volunteered as a programmer for Grand Rapids’ WYCE-FM, and started her own band, Olivia Mainville and The Aquatic Troupe.
Given the restless blur of Mainville’s career to date, it’s appropriate that her new band’s debut album — “Maybe the Saddest Thing,” which was recorded in April 2015 and released last December — resists categorization. Mainville cites Sufjan Stevens, Katzenjammer and Django Reinhardt as key influences, and her latest record also features splashes of folk, baroque pop, alternative rock and ragtime. With so many flavors in the mix, Mainville has had to coin a new term to summarize her band’s specific genre (or lack thereof): “gypsy swing folk.”
Mainville and her band will bring their rollicking live show to the Blind Pig this Saturday and Cultivate Coffee and TapHouse in Ypsilanti on Sunday. I caught up with Mainville to talk about going solo, managing her own band, and playing most of the instruments on her latest record.
Q: You played in various other bands before playing your own songs live and eventually forming the Aquatic Troupe. When did you decide to take the leap to start focusing on your own original material?
A: I joined a couple of other bands, but it never filled up the time like I wanted it to. We didn't have that many shows with the bands I was in. I wasn't really like totally into the music. It was one of those things where you're joining it because you can, and because they want you. It's not necessarily because you're super passionate about it. Obviously everybody's going to be a lot more passionate about their own craft, or at least most people. So in this case I was more passionate about my own craft, and I decided to pursue it on a new level.
Q: What was the first instrument you learned to play?
A: I started playing music in the fifth grade. I picked up the viola in orchestra. Basically I did it because I wanted to look really cool. I wanted to be one of those cool kids holding a viola case [laughs]. None of the other elementary school kids got to do that, unless you were in orchestra. I was in orchestra for four or five years, and I switched to the upright bass in high school. And then eventually I picked up the mandolin, which is actually in the same key as a violin, so it wasn't too different. And then I traded my upright bass for a violin. Then I picked up a guitar.
Q: How do you describe the kind of music you play with your band?
A: I describe it as "confused” [laughs]. We're actually starting to get more of a defined genre, although it doesn't present itself too well in the music right now. We're more a swing, jazz, ragtime and surf party band, now more than ever. But we also have our old songs, which are maybe more indie rock oriented. We're definitely leaning more towards the whole swing vibe now.
Q: There are so many different styles of music on your most recent album. Is that all you, or do you open your songs up to influences from the other band members?
A: 90 percent of the record was my bandmate Andy [Fettig] and I. He did all the trumpet, flugelhorn, and I think he did some saxophone on there. And then we had Bleu, my trombone player, and at that time he wasn't really too much in the band so he only laid down a couple tracks. Other than that I did all the strings, the accordions, the guitars, and the vocals.
Q: That's surprising, because the record has such a full, immediate sound, like a full band in a room locked into a groove. Can you tell me more about the process of making the record, where you recorded it, and how long it took to put it all together?
A: Before we started to record, I had kind of a different band. We had one different member, and we were only playing as a three-piece. We got together, chose the songs we were going to play, and we got together 10 days before we went into the studio and we rehearsed the all songs every day, added parts, and figured out all the other stuff so we could have a successful recording session without wasting any time.
We recorded it over the course of four days, but we had some problems with our drummer so we had to kick him out of the band. We re-did a lot of the drum tracks. We actually got it done last year in April, but we kept going back, which postponed it until about December. We kept adding things to it, and we kept finding things we didn't like and wanted to make different. We kept going back into the studio.
Q: Gerry Leonard, David Bowie's former musical director and lead guitarist, plays on the record. How did that come together?
A: I watched him a long time ago with Suzanne Vega, and I had talked to him a couple times as well and he was a really nice guy. I emailed him and I asked him if he would record on a track of ours. We decided that we wanted to make it an 11-track album, so I recorded the song "I Need Time" specifically for Gerry Leonard. I needed to write a song that worked with his style, and it was a great success. We actually just sent him the stem cells. He took it, recorded it, and it came back perfect.
Q: What else are you juggling in addition to your musical career? Do you have a day job? Are you in school?
A: I do a lot of yard work [laughs]. I also take lessons. I'm taking guitar lessons right now, and I'm about to take vocal lessons, because you can never stop learning. I'm also the booking agent for my band, so I book all the gigs. We're not run under any management, so all the money stuff and whatnot is all up to me. I book, I order the merch, I pay for the recording sessions, all that other stuff.
Q: That's impressive. Was there anybody who helped you along and showed you the ropes for how to do all of this yourself?
A: When I was 17 I got invited to go on a little tour with a band called The Accidentals. I played as their merch girl and roadie, so I helped them pack up, I help them load in, I sold their merch, and all that. I learned from them for a while and then I got invited to live with them for a summer and play a bunch of shows and stuff. Their manager Amber showed me the ropes and told me how to pretty much run a business. Everything was pretty strict and serious, which is what it should be, and I learned a lot. It definitely played into how I run things now.
Q: Are there any plans to take your band outside of Michigan or the Midwest in the near future?
A: Just a month ago we went out on an East Coast tour. We went to Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and a lot of other places. We're going to Wisconsin this summer, and we have two tours in September. We have a Southern tour, and we have a West Coast tour. We'll be hitting up Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, and we're going to try New Orleans. And then we're going to to the West Coast, so we're going to hit up Colorado, Iowa, all those places.
Q: What's it like performing outside of the safety net of your home state, away from your friends and family and the local musical community? Is that intimidating?
A: If I think about it too much it seems a little intimidating. It's always different. You never have the same crowd for any show. It's always interesting. You definitely play some not-so-great shows when you're out on tour, but we've also played some pretty nice ones where we had a really good response from people. But you get those ones where you get three or four people show up [laughs]. Every band has to go with that, unless you're super famous.
Q: What do you see in the future for your band? Do you have any kind of plan for where you want to take your sound, or how you might approach your next batch of songs?
A: We're definitely more for a rowdy crowd. In the future I would love to play to a lot bigger crowds, jazzy themed bars, stuff like that.
We're actually writing new songs now. We have four new tunes we're working on recording. We already have two down. We want to come out with another 10 song album, hopefully before December. We want to work with a guy named Adam [Schreiber] from Jack & the Bear. He does a very cool style of recording, very old sounding. It kind of works with the new genre we're going with. We already have one of our songs recorded. We're waiting for it to get mastered, and we'll release it out to the public.
Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
Olivia Mainville & the Aquatic Troupe play the Blind Pig on Saturday May 14, supported by Sedgewick, Jason Dennie, and Nadim Azzman. Doors are at 9 p.m. The Blind Pig is located at 208 N. First St. The show is 18 and up, and tickets are $8 in advance and $10 at the door.
The band will also open for Sedgewick at Cultivate Coffee and TapHouse on Sunday, May 15. Cultivate is located at 307 N. River in Ypsilanti. There is no cover, and the show will run from 5-8 p.m.
Humankind’s oldest art form is also the basis of one of The Ark’s longest running events. This year marks the 29th Anniversary of The Ark’s Annual Storytelling Festival, a two-night event that brings the oral tradition from the primordial bonfires of yore to The Ark’s warm and welcoming concert hall. Saturday night this year’s featured storytellers will spin yarns geared toward a mature adult audience, and Sunday afternoon they’ll switch gears to entertain an all ages crowd.
Over the years the festival has welcomed a bountiful mix of perspectives and storytelling styles, and this year is no exception. This weekend’s three featured storytellers -- author, playwright, storyteller, and NPR correspondent Kevin Kling; acclaimed musician and children’s entertainer Bill Harley; and local Irish performer Yvonne Healy -- spoke to me about what kinds of stories they will tell each night, and how their work has changed with the rise of radio storytelling shows like The Moth and Snap Judgement.
Headliner Kevin Kling is known for his humorous personal stories about his Midwestern upbringing and his experience with physical disability. Though he has been featured regularly on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Kling says he prefers performing in front of a live audience.
“Garrison Keillor really put us on the map, and somebody said, I thought very accurately, that he plays a microphone like a Stradivarius,” Kling says of his distinctly Midwestern colleague. “He's so wonderful on the radio. He really has found that medium. I'm a bit different in that I love a live audience. There's something visceral and chemical, something that happens on stage that neither sound waves nor lightwaves can quite fill. That to me is the magic of a live performance. You don't see a lot of standing ovations in front of the radio.”
Kling says he always knew he wanted to be a performer, but early on he had no idea he would get paid to simply stand on stage and talk about his life. He says his professional career as a storyteller began in that most fabled of artistic proving grounds: the dinner party.
“I was in the kitchen at a party, you know that's always the best place, and I was just blabbing away,” he says. “Little did I know there was a theater producer in the kitchen and she said, ‘Do you want to be in our season next year?’ And I said, ‘Doing what?’ And she said, ‘Just what you did in the kitchen.’ Before I knew it, before I knew what I was, I was on stage telling stories in a theater in Minneapolis. And then I went to Seattle, and then off-Broadway, doing pretty much what I did in that kitchen.”
Kling says he doesn’t know exactly which of his two-hundred-plus stories he will tell this weekend. He likes to show up to a venue with a good chunk of his repertoire in mind and read the crowd before deciding where to take the audience for the evening. One topic he is certain he will touch on, though, is disability, something he’s an expert on. Kling was born with a deformed left arm, and he lost the use of his right one after a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Still, he assures us he’ll keep things as light as possible no matter how serious the subject matter he chooses to delve into might be.
“It will be done with humor,” he says. “That's the best way for me to get through that because you can laugh at something that doesn't control you anymore. Everybody in the audience knows loss. People say, ‘What's the difference between stand-up comedy and storytelling? You close a door with a joke with comedy, but with storytelling you open a door with a joke. It's like you're saying, ‘Now that we're all here, let's get to it.’’
Joining Kling on stage this weekend is another nationally renowned storyteller, Bill Harley. Dubbed “The Mark Twain of contemporary children’s music,” Harley pairs wit, humor, and song to embellish tales of his childhood, coming-of-age, and family life.
When asked why he is drawn primarily to telling stories from his youth, Harley responds, “I find that if I talk seriously about childhood, then everybody usually comes along. That's the birthplace of our disaster, so that's pretty fertile territory.”
Harley says he probably won’t tailor the topics of the tales he chooses for the adult and family sessions this weekend, but rather the manner in which he tells them.
“It's not so much structure as it is language, nuance and subtext,” he says. “If you talk about childhood or coming-of-age seriously, those experiences we carry with us through our whole lives, everytime we touch on those experiences it brings up something that touches us, that reaches adults just as much as it does younger kids. Obviously with the family show, I'm less likely do to do a 40-minute story. With a family show you can't mess around. You've got to keep your pedals moving and your foot to the floor and be very aware of what`s going on. With adult performances, there's a lot more nuance, and there's a lot more chance for discovery.”
Harley’s performances will ensure the melodic comfort The Ark typically traffics in won’t be entirely lost for the weekend. He says audiences are often surprised and delighted by the way he flirts with the intersection between song and spoken word.
“When you sing a song, people go, ‘Okay, we know that,’” he says. “And then you put your guitar down or you're holding your guitar and you start to talk, and all of a sudden people are kind of waiting for the talking to end and the music to begin again. And slowly, they realize this is something other. I always have people come up to me and say, ‘I haven't been to something like this for years. I can't remember the last time I sat and listened to something like that.’ It's an amazing experience.”
Local Irish storyteller Yvonne Healy rounds out this weekend’s bill with a rollicking blend of traditional Irish folklore and mythology and flamboyant tales of her own personal experience. Healy, now a resident of Howell, was born in Ireland and raised in the U.S. She says her upbringing straddled the cultural mores and traditions of both countries and gave her a master class in the art of storytelling.
“Inside the house was Ireland, and outside the house was the United States,” she says. “So inside the house we spoke Irish, and we danced Irish dances and sang to Irish music. We behaved in an Irish way, and part of that is learning to tell stories properly, with proper accent and proper detail. I learned by rote, phrase by phrase.”
Healy’s father had a profound influence on her interest in telling stories. She describes him as an alternately charming and argumentative contrarian who could worm his way out of any situation with a good yarn.
“I asked him one time, ‘How is it that you never get beat up?’ And he said, ‘Well I got beat up once. Now, whenever I get to that point, and I like getting them to that point, then I tell them a story and confuse them. And then they let me go.’ So really, talking is a martial art.”
Like this weekend’s other two storytellers, Healy says she doesn’t yet know exactly what stories she’ll bring to the stage. She says Sunday she will stick to traditional folklore and mythology because she believes children, who are are developing their perspective on life, need the neatness of literary devices and literary structure. For Saturday night, she says she will cull stories from her own life. With more and more people being introduced to live storytelling via NPR, she says that seems to be what people want to hear these days.
“I think it’s because we have such an educated populace,” she says. “We can figure out where stories are going to go, but real life is not neat like a fictional story is. Real life is messy and doesn't have those kind of fictional constructs, and so that's very interesting to us. We spend a lot of time alone or with screens in our contemporary society, and I think having deep, real conversations with other people face-to-face is very moving for everybody.”
Healy elaborates on that last remark. Live storytelling, she says, is a conversation between the performer and the audience.
“The story changes depending on how the audience reacts,” she says. “If you're losing some people in some place, you kind of come back and go back into the thread and go off on another digression, but only if the audience is responding to it. A story is really co-created by everybody in the room.”
Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer, and he would love to tell you the story about the time he saw a UFO.
The Ark’s 29th Annual Storytelling Festival runs Saturday at 7:30 p.m. & Sunday, at 1 p.m. The Ark is located at 316 S. Main St. Tickets are on sale now through the Michigan Union Ticket Office and at The Ark's website. Tickets are priced at $20 for the Saturday evening show and $10 for the kids’ show on Sunday afternoon.