Friday, November 3, 2017

A Conversation with Robin Borneman

While millions of Trans-Siberian Orchestra fans know Dutch singer Robin Borneman from his naturally flowing curls and his gravelly voice on "Forget About the Blame" (from TSO's most recent album), there is another side to Robin where his creativity is bursting in the form of stories, songs, videos and more.  Since 2013, Borneman has spent two months of every year touring the eastern half of the USA with the Christmas spectacle that is TSO.  The rest of the year? Robin spends that writing, recording, and performing his own amazing solo releases.  In October of this year, Borneman released the stunning new album that constitutes the second in his Folklore trilogy: Folklore 2 - The Phantom Wail.  In between his Album Release Concert and his preparations for the 2017 TSO tour, I caught up with him to discuss the Folklore triumvirat, his work with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, his love of crows, and much more.

Dan Roth: · Robin, I want to start by asking about your musical background growing up in the Netherlands – or is it Holland?

Robin Borneman: Well, we say both here. They mean something different if you dive into the history but nowadays we use either.
Photo Courtesy of  Jos van den Broek

DR:  Got it. But you're Dutch.

RB:  I am very, very Dutch.  [Laughs] They call me the "Dutchie" on the TSO tour.  [Laughs]

DR:  Growing up, was there ever a significant moment or event that spurred you down the musical path? An album or artist perhaps?

RB:  There were a couple of influences but the one thing that stands out the most is Jesus Christ Superstar. That was probably my first encounter with music.  My mom used to play it a lot and I remember singing along with it even though I didn't know what it meant back then or what they were singing about. The theatrical aspect of it became a major influence on how I sing.  It also inspired the drama and the spiritual subjects that I sing about today.

DR:  The guitar is your instrument of choice.  What made you gravitate towards the guitar?

RB:  I got a guitar for Christmas one year when I was very young and never really used it.  When I was 15 years old or so, I discovered Nirvana, Metallica and other bands that were starting to appeal to me. From that point, I picked the guitar back up and started imitating my heroes.

DR:  Can you tell me some of the artists that have helped shape and influence your solo work?  I find it difficult to describe or easily categorize your music to others. There is some folk in there but so much more - blues, rock, country - but all identifiable as you.

RB:  Thanks, Dan. That is a compliment to me.  My booking agent often has the same problem and doesn't know what to do with me for that same reason.  I just do whatever it is I want to do. For example, if I end up creating a blues song, then it is a blues song. If I like it, it will be on the album.

Over the years, there have been artists like Genesis and Dire Straits - bands that my Dad was listening to that influenced me before I was really aware.  But once I became more aware and picked out my own artists, it was definitely Tom Waits who really became my idol. He is the one who taught me that it is OK to be crazy in music, do whatever I wanted to do and not be bound to a single genre. He really became a role model rebel to me. Even today, what he does can be so weird but at the same time, so poetic.

DR:  I have four of your studio albums and, while they are musically diverse, each one really tells such deep stories. Can you tell me about your songwriting process?

RB:  I like to write from my emotional side and it's always different.  Sometimes it will start with a single chord that I find on my guitar. Sometimes I find a melody and if it inspires me, then the lyrics just come out.  It is hard to explain. I wish I had a formula but it really comes from me just sitting on the couch, thinking about nothing and playing. If it is an interesting idea to me, I immediately know what the song is going to be like. If there is going to be a violin in it or a saxophone, all of those ideas just become obvious to me.  I know this sounds like some sort of magical process, but it is the only thing in life that I don't know how it works.

DR:  You recently posted the comment, “Songs just seem to come pouring out of me, it's actually quite ridiculous

RB:  [Laughs]  Yeah!  I know that may sound arrogant, but I did not mean it that way.  I just am able to write so easily. I often have a hundred songs in my head and there are times that I don't want to touch my guitar because I don't want to write another song.  [Laughs]  

DR:  Do you have a go-to guitar of choice?  Or do you play from a variety of them?

RB:  I play different ones, but there is my Gibson J-50 from 1959, which is my baby.  When I got off the first tour I did with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I gave myself the one gift of buying the one guitar that I always wanted. I went to the store and played hundreds of guitars, but came home with this one.  I am twice the guitar player than I would have been if not for this Gibson Acoustic.

DR:  You have released several solo albums now, leading up to the Folklore trilogy.  When did you start writing and recording?

RB:  Right when I first started playing guitar. I had already been writing lyrics - they were just poems. I started writing songs right away.  I never learned to play covers or figure things out from other players, which is something that I should have done. I really just started to write. I had so many lyrics already so it was obvious to me that I would put them to music.  The very first songs that I wrote are very similar to what I write today, actually. They were really the same melancholic, heavy style with the same elements of loneliness that I still use in my music today.  Hopefully the newer songs are better. [Laughs] 

DR:  We've talked a lot so far about your solo work.  I wanted to briefly touch on the band that you were in - Dearworld.  That seems light years from where you are at musically.

RB: Dearworld was an electro-rock sort of thing that became more electronic along the way.  I was 22 and started this band with my best friends. We would go to parties and see DJs turning knobs and we would think, "We could do that but use real instruments".  That's how it started and the radio picked us up.  Within a year or two, we had a full schedule of shows. The live shows were the best time; I was dancing around and it was a great way to express all of this energy in a very beautiful way.  The audiences were insane! I love to jump around on stage and be crazy and that is something I miss when performing my own music.

Dearworld was a lot of fun and lasted about six years. All during that period I was also writing and releasing my own music. When I started writing Folklore it became obvious to me that I was going to have to give up Dearworld.  My own music has always been closer to me than anything else.

DR:  Let's talk about that Folklore trilogy.  Being that it’s a trilogy of albums, do you already have the entire story mapped out or written out?

RB:  I do. The reason I wanted to do a trilogy is because I have so many songs and they all fit together in this one storyline. This is also something that I always had wanted to do.  I remember when I was 16 years old telling my buddies that someday I wanted to make a movie without images, like a radio play. When I started to write down the story and the songs, I realized that this is going to be way too long for a single album. No one wants to hear a double album from an unknown artist! [Laughs] I was also influenced by the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies.  I love those movies - they are like my Bible. So in the end I decided that it would be a trilogy.  When I first began working on this, I did not realize how much work it was going to be.  So far, it has been five years and when I finish with the last part, it will have been seven years of writing and recording.  It is fun, but a little ambitious. [Laughs]

DR:  The story itself seems to revolve around a man referred to only as "Ranger” and he is clearly on a lonely journey searching for something. What is he looking for? His reason for being? A spiritual path?

RB:  To me, it is a spiritual path - something that we all do in life. In the first part, he is losing his memory and his name, which is his identity really.  He then has to undergo all of these tests throughout the first two parts, but all done very metaphorically.  By the end of Part 2, he has regained or earned back his name.  In the end - and this is SPOILER ALERT [Laughs] - when we come to Part 3 the main realization will be that all that time he was looking for something but it really wasn't about that. It is really about "the road" itself, which is what we do. Part 3 will be more warm and about family and coming home.

DR:  Where are these stories coming from? Is any of it pulled from your own experiences? Are any of these songs autobiographical at all?

RB:  I got this question not long ago and it has been keeping me busy because my first answer was, "No, it's not autobiographical because it's a fantasy story". But, if I really think about it, it is really how I perceive life.  So, in a way it is autobiographical. I hardly ever use names of people that I know in my lyrics, so to me, the character Muriel is not a particular person that was in my life, but more a metaphor for love in general. That's how I usually write.  Everything I do in life finds its way into my songs, but in more of a helicopter-view kind of way.

DR: The listener first learns of Muriel in the title track "The Waving Days" where he is thinking of her and wishing he could love her more.  And then she gets her own song later in the album.

RB:  Around the time I started recording Folklore 1 The Waving Days, I had a girlfriend.  I broke up with her because I felt I needed to be alone to get into the story.  When I wrote and recorded Muriel, I was thinking about her.  She was the kind of girl that kept me grounded and when I lost her, Muriel became that person that would call for you when you are in dire need. She really became this sort of guiding angel kind of character.

DR:  There are a number of songs on these albums where he is questioning his faith – particularly on Folklore 2.  For example, in "The Crossroads", you write about the angels leading him astray and the Lord is not his God. In "O Faithful World", you seem to speak to the impact religion has on him, hopeless days and kneeling before "the Lord of None".  Where is this coming from?  Are you a religious person?

RB:  I am not a religious person but I am a very spiritual person. To me, spirituality and religion are two different things. The reason I write a lot about religion is because to me, religion to a lot of people is what spirituality is to me.  It's a way to translate my own experiences into something they are familiar with.  The reason religion is often criticized in my lyrics is because I look at religion as the hijacked version of spirituality. Spirituality does not require a person to kneel before anyone or get their morality from a book.  I'm not against religion but I feel like there is a missed opportunity for humanity here.

DR:  The first part of the trilogy is subtitled “The Waving Days” – I had never heard that phrase before. Can you describe what The Waving Days are?

RB:  When I think about The Waving Days in combination with the story and the Autumn-kind of vibe to the story, I see days waving by like leaves on a tree. Days are waving by as you live and grow older and those days are passing you by. It is a very sad and lonely kind of image.

DR:  Folklore 1 The Waving Days ends with Ranger journeying across the valley to find the giving Cradle Tree, whose branches will send you home. What does The Cradle Tree represent?

RB:  You are asking a really important question here.  The Cradle Tree is the end goal - it is a fantasy thing I came up with to be a tree in the shape of a hand. This is essentially the Tree of Life - it gives life and also takes it away.

DR:  In between The Waving Days and The Phantom Wail, you released an EP (Caught on Tape) of songs that you cut live in a studio that included songs from both of those albums as well as “Mercy” from your Home album. What led you to you record and release this?

RB: The way I recorded Folklore 1 and 2 was that I basically wrote all of these songs on my own and then recorded in the studio with some of my friends. I then did all of the editing and most of the mixing myself which results in a single person doing all of this work with his timing and his preferences.  I really started to miss the interaction of being in a band and playing together and mistakes that people make that turn out to be beautiful. I told the guys that we should go into the studio on a day and record a couple songs together. I never expected it to come out so, if I may say so, so great.  I am really proud of this. When I was mixing it, I just knew that I wanted to put this out and it became a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be.

DR:  The songs have a bit of a sparser feeling than on their studio albums, but a lot of the elements that made up the atmosphere of those songs were still there in a way.

RB:  I am really happy with how it came out.  It also proved to me that I could capture the soul of the album version with a four-piece band. It's not about the train in the distance or the sound of crows.  These songs have a certain texture or structure that stands.

DR:  You just released the second part of the trilogy, Folklore 2 The Phantom Wail. We first heard that phrase on “Sacred Curse of Change”, the opening song of The Waving Days. You wrote “Upon these lands they rove around the arid fields of corn, Sowing seeds of frozen tears, they’ll cry out once they’re grown, A false cry, A phantom wail dressed in rags and feathers of time”. Tell me about The Phantom Wail and why is it the name of the new album?

RB:  My meaning of The Phantom Wail is fear or evil.  It is the thing that holds us back from becoming who we really are. It can take on many shapes that represent this jealousy or evil.  In that particular poem, I look at it as some sort of a ghost. It's there and can be in the same room as you without you realizing that it's there. The reason why I chose the word "wail" is because it is like a cry that you don't want to hear because it is hurting you.  This was a very strong image that I had and felt that it was appropriate to make the title of the second part.

DR:  Folklore 2 feels more intense at times than the first part, particularly with songs like "O Faithful World", "The Crossroads" and "The Reckoning". Was this intentional to rock out a bit more or because the subject matter of this release is dealing more about such malevolent subjects?

RB:  It was intentional. The first part is more adventurous and I am trying out certain things. The second part was always going to be the loudest and the darkest, particularly as the themes on this album are more aggressive.

DR:  You created two music videos so far for this album.

RB:  Yes!  When I was editing the Caught on Tape videos, I just started to learn Adobe Premier, which I picked up pretty easily because of my graphic design background. Doing those live videos really inspired me to think about creating my own music videos. When I had an idea for "O Faithful World", I sat down with a photographer friend of mine, Ruud van de Wiel, and we just started shooting some shots and next thing I knew, music video number one was finished and that inspired me to make another.  The second one was much more ambitious.  I really like making these videos.  It helps unlock the same creative box that making music does.  I have the same sort of obsession when making these videos that I do when working on a song.  I really like doing it!

DR:  Was there a reason you picked those two particular songs to create videos for?

RB:  "O Faithful World" was a no-brainer because it's one of the few songs of mine that just takes off from the beginning.  Most of my songs start slow and build up and I liked the idea of doing something with this song.  I never thought I would make a video for "The Reckoning" just because it is so long. Once we sat down and started shooting though, we kept on having so many more ideas and we wound up shooting more than we needed.  It's funny, I am so proud of it but it came out so weird and there is so much of me in it; I can't look at it myself. [Laughs]  I had a good group of people that helped give me honest feedback when we were making it though because I couldn't keep looking at myself. [Laughs]  I don't even like to put myself on the album covers because I feel like it's more about the story and not about me so this was really scary but really fun at the same time.

DR: In "The Reckoning", there is a turning point and a voice asks him where he will go now

RB:  "The Reckoning", for me,  is a game changing moment for the Ranger. He learns that it is OK to let out your dark side.  He realizes that he is not that dark person and that it doesn't make you a devil because you have a dark side.  That voice he hears that asks him where he will go could be Muriel,; it could be a voice that is always with him and it calls him home in a way.

DR:  This album, like the previous, is really filled such such despair on his journey, but this album ends with two songs – “Dawn” and “Found”, which seem to be stories filled with hope – is the Ranger finding what he seeks?

RB:  That's the moment where he reclaims his name.  In this case, his name is a metaphor for his identity. "Found" is the last part where he is coming out of a really dark world that he was in.  Since Folklore 2 is so dark, I didn't want to end it with "The Reckoning" - I wanted there to be a bridge to the Part 3.

DR:  Musically, both of these albums are such a rich soundscape with the various ambient sounds that go along with the music, which really helps draw the listener in to the experience and the story. We didn't hear this on your previous albums - do you enjoy adding in that aspect of the piece?

RB:  I love doing that!  I might even love that more than adding actual instruments in.  [Laughs]  When I start off, I put my headphones on and it is just so silent!  I instantly want to add the sound of waves or wind or just experiment with the atmosphere.  I could listen to the sounds of rolling waves or the sound of crows for hours.  That's the way I like to dress up my songs.

DR:  There is a wide array of musicians on these albums.  Did you recruit them especially for this project?

RB:  I met my co-producer and drummer, Wouter Bude, when we were doing the Dearworld album.  I called on a lot of my friends who are musicians and can play much better than I do to play on the album also. For this album, the guitar player Roman Huijbreghs who is also in my band, really helped come up with a lot of the great guitar parts you hear.
Robin Borneman  Nijmegen, Netherlands  October 2017
Photo Courtesy of Rob Jansen/3voor12

DR:  You yourself are not listed in the liner notes other than writing and producing.  Do you also play guitar on the album?

RB:  Yeah.  I play acoustic and some of the electric parts, like the solo on "Talisman". And you know that third part in "The Reckoning", the solo with the feedback?  That's actually me and I am so proud of that!  But it felt so pointless to credit myself.  I don't mind not crediting myself.

DR:  I do see another Borneman listed in the credits - Mary?

RB:  She's my mom!  She plays accordion on both Folklore albums.  I asked her to come to my home studio and she recorded her parts and it was so much fun!  It is so great to have her on my albums.  I am really proud of her.

DR:  I understand Dustin Brayley helped with lyric translation on Folklore 2.

RB:  Yeah.  I am not a native speaker and often my lyrics are very poetic.  Sometimes I am not sure if they are correct so I always have someone check my lyrics and grammar before recording.  In this case, it was my good friend Dustin.

DR:  I wanted to ask about the cover art.  For both Folklore albums, the artwork is so striking and matches the mood of the albums.

RB:  Barbara Florczyk in Poland designed those.  For the first one, I was on my computer looking for pictures of trees and saw this picture, which became the cover of Folklore 1 and I immediately knew I wanted that to be on the cover of the album.  I reached out to her and we worked out a deal for the rights for me to use it as the cover.  Because I was so happy with the first one, I asked her to create the cover for the second one and I am so happy with how it came out. She will be creating the cover for the third one also.

DR:  What is the significance of the crow that is on in the trees on those covers?  There is also a crow on the back cover of your Home album and there is mention of crows in your lyrics.

RB:  Crows are my favorite bird.  They are so intelligent and are always around. They are just so dark and they really interest me.  In Folklore, the crow is what is leading you astray.

DR:  Let's shift gears a bit and talk about your involvement with Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  You have been singing with them since 2013.  I understand it was a Tom Waits cover performance that got you noticed?

Robin With TSO  Uncasville, CT  November 2014
Photo Courtesy of Ken Bowser
RB: Yeah, it was.  It was a very early morning after a full weekend of recording with Dearworld and my voice was just shattered.  I decided to do a Tom Waits cover since my voice was already there and I put it up on YouTube.  About a year later, I got an email from [Talent Coordinator] Danielle Sample saying that she was with TSO and that she wanted me to do an audition for them.  I didn't know anything about them at all but my manager at the time told me to do the audition because he knew who TSO were.

DR:  I understand that they usually ask you to make an audition video first before coming to their studios.  Similar process with you?

RB:  Yes.  My first video was "Christmas Dreams" which was a hard one for me because it is a pretty intense song. After that, I got "Believe" - they sent me the TSO version with Tim Hockenberry on vocals.  I remember just being mesmerized by it and I asked them if I could do a guitar version of the song.  I really got familiar with the song and came up with my own version of it.  This is apparently what Paul heard that got me to the audition in Florida.

DR:  Had you been in the USA before?

RB:  No! This was the scariest day of my life.  [Laughs] This was my first time in the United States.  My first time meeting Paul O'Neill, Al Pitrelli, Derek Wieland, and Dave Wittman.    I had made a decision leading up to my trip not to find out anything about whom I was going to meet.  I didn't want to know anything about who Al Pitrelli was or who Paul O'Neill was - I was nervous enough already.  So, I got to the studio ready to focus on the songs, ready to do my best and ready to focus on what they expected me to do.   The way Paul worked was very fast - he would go from left to right, then he tells you a story and wants you to do it again but from a completely different angle.  I thought I was doing it all wrong. As the day went by, my confidence was gone and I was certain that I would not be hired.  Finally, Paul pulled me aside and told me that he was completely blown away and that he wanted me to be part of the tour. It was such a weird day but great at the same time.

DR: Performing on the TSO stage can involve lots of stage movement – running around that gigantic stage, interacting with other performers, swinging the hair of course and engaging with the audience. None of which you do during your solo live performances.  [Laughs]

RB:  [Laughs]

DR:  Was all of that stage presence and energy difficult to learn? Did it come naturally?  Or did it harken back to your Dearworld days?

RB:  Oh yeah!  If not for Dearworld, I would not have been able to pull that off.  On the one hand, I feel like I am that "poetic ballad" type guy. But I do have a lot of energy and I enjoy running around and jumping and screaming.  When I was doing "Sparks", my Dearworld energy was running through my veins and I was just feeling it.  Doing that song was originally an experiment and after I did it, Paul was like, "OK, you're doing Sparks now" [Laughs]. It was a lot of fun.  I learned so much from singing that song, both as a singer and a performer.

DR:  Was it intimidating being there and performing with such seasoned performers from Broadway and the rock world?

RB:  Hell yeah! Intimidating is really the right word.  As a European kid being in America for the first time, everyone is just so damn confident compared to most Europeans I know. My first two years, I had many moments where I would think, "What am I doing here?!".  The musicians are just on another level.  I was thrown into this pool and was just trying to swim. Everything is so much bigger - the cars, the roads, the distances, the personalities I was dealing with - people like Rob Evan and Russell Allen who I love, don't get me wrong.  But I was just so green.  I wasn't scared and I was confident enough to go out there and sing my songs, but I was just in awe of everything.

DR:  You have sung five different songs on the TSO stage thus far.  We already talked about "Sparks" - I'd like you to comment on the others, starting with "Believe". you mentioned that did that on your audition.  On your first tour with TSO in 2013, you were singing "Sparks", but you were singing "Believe" on the Morning Drive radio appearances that you would do.

RB:  I am not sure why they had me doing that.  It's a great song to sing at those radio appearances though.  I have never sung it in the United States during a Show.  We toured Europe in 2014 and I sang it at those Shows.

DR:  That had to have gone over so well in Europe with Savatage being so appreciated there.

RB:  It was so great. It was so amazing when we played Amsterdam. That was the best day of the year for me. I remember rolling in to the Netherlands with all of the stage trucks and buses just being so damn proud. I was feeling like, "Here I am, this Dutch guy with this amazing band!" [Laughs]  My parents, my bandmates from Dearworld, my girlfriend at the time were all there - it was great.

DR:  Did you get a special introduction that night, being the hometown kid?

RB:  Actually, Al gave me the microphone! [Laughs] I was able to thank the audience in Dutch and the crowd just went crazy.  Just by talking about this now, I can feel the excitement again.

DR:  You sang "Believe" again at the 2015 performance at Wacken where you split the song with Jon Oliva.

RB:  That was one of the best days of my life. We had been rehearsing for two weeks in Florida before we flew to Germany.  The whole thing was such an adrenaline rush. I was so honored to be singing "Believe" with Jon, I was so focused; I did not have much room to fuck up. [Laughs]  When the song started, it was still dark on my side of the stage.  I walked towards the mic while Jon was singing and when I started singing right after the drum break, the lights went on.  I saw this ocean of people all of a sudden out there and I remember thinking "What the fuck!" but I had to really focus on singing the song. It was such a profound experience to do a massive performance like that.  I wish now, when I look at footage, that I would have said something like, "Give it up for Jon Oliva!" but I was just so focused and maybe shy to say anything.

DR:  "Find our Way Home" is a song you have sung the last two years, though you changed outfits - In 2015 you were wearing a standard stage jacket but in 2016 you were wearing a sort of a trenchcoat.
Robin Borneman with TSO   Greensboro, NC  December 2016
Photo Courtesy of Ben Miller

RB:  Well the coat has everything to do with how it feels like it is the closing song. Wearing a winter coat almost is showing like I am ready to leave.  Paul really liked that so we kept it in.  I remember singing it one time when the band was playing it in rehearsals and I just grabbed the mic and started singing it.  Paul came in and stood behind me without me seeing him and when we were done, Paul told me that I would be singing that song! It is such a beautiful song and I can really relate to it. I really connect with this "Ranger", "Storyteller", kind of rider that tells you it's OK to go home now and find your way.

DR:  For the 2014 tour, you sang "Dream Child".  When I interviewed vocalist Bart Shatto - who sang it for the West tour - he told me how you and he rehearsed together side by side in this small studio with Paul, Jon, Al and Danielle.  You and he each had a different interpretation as you alternated takes.

RB:  I really loved performing that.  I actually had that song to learn in my first year because they were thinking of adding it to the set but they wound up leaving it out.  And Bart is right - I would sing it and then he would perform it and back and forth.  I liked Bart's approach and it was really interesting to sort of spar with each other and take certain elements out of his performance and add them to mine.

DR:  The last song I want to ask you about is the one you also recorded for TSO - "Forget About the Blame"

RB:  You know, we never intended to record that song. It was a song that Paul didn't write, but he had it sitting there for a long time. We were just listening to music one day and talking and all of a sudden he pulls it out and he tells me to listen to it and do a take.  I told him to give me an hour and I did a take of it. After he heard it, he told me that he decided to go ahead and record it.  I love that song and am so glad it found its way onto the album.

DR:  Since you were at the studio already, were you there to record something else?

RB:  I was.  Paul had me trying out a few different songs. I remember doing a take of "Not the Same" and doing it an octave lower which gave it sort of a Leonard Cohen kind of vibe to it.

DR:  When you were recording your vocals to "Forget About the Blame", what were you singing to?

RB:  That was the amazing Al Pitrelli, who recorded the whole backing track.  I had told Paul to give me an hour to work on my vocals and Al said, "Give me two hours" and he had the entire thing ready. Al is one of those amazing magicians who can grab a guitar and turn anything into everything.  He has really inspired me over the years.  So in a few hours, they had the whole backing track done. Later on they added the gospels and changed the drums up. It came together really fast.

DR:  For the TSO Shows, the singers learn multiple songs so you can fill in for someone if needed. Have you had to do that yet?
Robin Borneman with TSO  Reading, PA  January 2015
Photo Courtesy of Ben Miller

RB:  I haven't.  But when I have to, I am ready.  My backup songs are mostly Russ' songs, like "Christmas Nights in Blue". I also do "Christmas Dreams".  That's such a fun thing to do - we always sing each other's songs in the dressing rooms; it keeps things really fresh.

DR:  I wanted to get your thoughts on two people that were lost this year - Paul O'Neill and bassist David Z.

RB:  I've just been really sad and I miss them terribly.  They were both such big personalities.  Paul was such a mastermind and a teacher.  And with the way Dave laughed and the way he spoke and the way he was excited about stuff - he was such a big personality.  For someone like them to pass away so suddenly, it leaves such a large hole because of who they were. Whenever I see a picture of David or Paul, it's still just so fresh.  Being over here on the other side of the ocean, it is hard to share my sorrow because not many over here knew them.  I really just miss my friends.

DR: A few weeks back, you held an album release concert for Folklore 2.  When you performed "The Crossroads", I understand you did that on a guitar that Paul had given you?

RB:  That is correct.  I never told anyone about this.  Paul gave me a guitar last year that was built just for me. I have it right here in my hands right now. It was such an amazing gift.  It has a silver plate on the back that says, "To Robin Borneman from Paul O'Neill". This is such a sacred guitar to me and I will always have it with me. That was the first time I had that guitar on stage with me. I wanted to share it with the audience and talk about how he isn't with us anymore. Me standing there that night with that guitar around my neck was such a spiritual moment.

DR:  I just have a couple questions to wrap this up. Because your lyrics are so deep and tell such vivid stories, have you ever considered writing a book?

RB:  I have considered writing a book.  In fact, I have already started writing it. It's something I always wanted to do but right now, I am not patient enough.  To be a writer, you have to be patient because it takes such dedication.  If I am recording music and come up with eight songs, I can release an album. To write a book, you have to commit to the whole thing from top to bottom. I have an idea - it will be a fictional story but it's not fully shaped yet.

DR: What's the most curious record in your collection?

RB:  Ooh, that's a good question.  I am actually now gazing at my record collection.  I think I would have to say The Black Rider by Tom Waits. It is such a weird album but over time, I became so familiar with it.  When I listen to it now, it is so comforting and nostalgic. It is such a strange, avant-garde collection of songs but I really like the craziness of it.

DR:  This year you got to open for Kiefer Sutherland and also follow Eddie Vedder on his bill.  Which was the cooler experience?

RB: The cooler experience was opening for Kiefer Sutherland.  We didn't get to meet Eddie Vedder - that was the same week that his buddy Chris Cornell died and he was pretty unhappy.  The Kiefer Sutherland shows were great because they were close to sold out and I was there on my own. The room was quiet - you could hear a pin drop - but my music was really projecting and I could feel that people really liked it and understood what I was about. And also, Kiefer Sutherland is a really nice guy!

DR:  Robin, thank you for taking the time today and best wishes on the upcoming TSO tour.

RB:  Thank you, Dan! I appreciate you taking your time as well!

For more information:

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Conversation with Dino Jelusić

Vocalist Dino Jelusić has been performing in front of audiences around the world for most of his life. Since hitting it big early as a pre-teen star in his native Croatia and around the world, Jelusić has been following a rock and metal trajectory, writing and releasing music inspired by his wide range of musical heroes and fueled by his own unique musical virtuosity. Over the last two years, Jelusić has solidified his own band, Animal Drive, and signed a worldwide record deal.  He was also introduced to North American audiences in a big way as he toured as a featured vocalist with Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  I caught up with Dino while he took a break from recording his band's new album to chat about all of this and more.

Dan Roth:  Dino, can you tell me about your musical background?  Did you always have musical aspirations?

Dino Jelusić:  Yes.  My father was a guitarist in a rock band and my mother was playing flute, so I was always surrounded by music.  I have been singing since I was three years old and had my first TV appearance when I was five. Things just developed from there. As I grew up, I started listening to Led Zeppelin, Kingdom Come, Whitesnake, Iron Maiden, and so on.

DR:  In 2003, you won the first-ever Junior Eurovision Song Contest from singing "Ti si moja prva ljubav" ("You are my one and only").  Did you compose that song as well as sing it?  Can you tell me a little about this contest?

DJ:  I was 11 years old and it was a real breakthrough for me to become popular in my country. I remember the day I wrote the song - I was ten years old and my father asked me if I wanted to sign up for this contest. First, I won Croatia with the song and then four months later I won the entire contest in Denmark. Next thing I know, I am performing around the world and had released my first album worldwide.  That era of my career wrapped up in 2007 when my voice changed.

DR:  Today you seem to sing equally well in English as well as your native language.  When were you comfortable enough to sing in English?

DJ:  My first English song was made in 1999, so 18 years ago. I was seven years old. Back then, I could already speak English - not as well as now of course - but I was travelling around the world and picking up English pretty quickly.  That first album actually had ten songs sung in Croatian and five of them sung in English. Since I was singing at many festivals in Europe and Africa, we decided to record and release some songs in English as well.

DR:  Moving on from there, you released your first rock album in 2011, Living My Own Life.

DJ:  I would put my career into three sections. The first being the Eurovision days, the next being Living My Own Life, and then my current era since 2012.  With the Living My Own Life album, I did not write any of the songs on there so I do not sing any of those songs anymore in my concerts.  In 2012, I performed in South Africa and did songs like "Walk on the Other Side" and "Bad to the Bone", songs that I still perform with Animal Drive today. From that point. I really got into the more rock/metal scene.

DR:  You mentioned earlier some of the bands you grew up listening to.  Is there any one band or album that really inspired you to move in this direction?

DJ:  I can't remember any one particular album but let me tell you the first five CDs on my shelf right now. The first one is King's X Dogman, which is such a great, fun hard rock album. Slash's Apocalyptic Love,  Whitesnake's Slip of the Tongue, Dream Theater's Scene from a Memory. Toto's Kingdom of Desire!  I am big Toto fan and this is probably my favorite album. I love Velvet Revolver, Jet, Aerosmith, Chris Cornell, Lenny Kravitz, Tool, Lamb of God, John Mayer, Phil Collins, Billy Joel.  I listen to so much and it's a big musical mess. [Laughs]

DR:  We certainly know you as a lead vocalist and songwriter - do you also play any instrument?  I believe I saw you on keyboards in one live video.

DJ:  I do!  I've been playing piano for seventeen years and this year I will finish up my studies at Zagreb Music Academy.  On the new Animal Drive album, I am playing all of the keyboards in addition to the vocals. I also play keyboards with the band Stone Leaders with drummer John Macaluso.

DR:  You mentioned that you divide your career up into three parts. Let's talk about your last couple of years where you won the New Wave Festival in Sochi, hired by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and got your own band signed to a major recording contract.

DJ:  Trans-Siberian Orchestra has been amazing.  It's a whole new level for me and really inspiring. Getting to know all of these people and touring big arenas around America...I cannot wait to go out again in a few months.

Before the 2016 TSO tour, I recorded some songs with my band and was going to put out an EP. I thought that when the tour ends, some fans may want to hear what else I was doing. During the TSO rehearsals, Jeff Scott Soto asked to hear some of my songs.  I played him one ballad and two heavy songs - and even though at the time I wasn't believing in these yet - Jeff loved them and contacted Frontiers Records about my music. Frontiers also loved what they heard and told me that they wanted to release an entire album from us!

Dino Jelusic with Animal Drive, Cakovec Croatia, May 2017
Photo Courtesy Maja Music
When I got back to Croatia, we decided to change the name of the band from Dino and the Mad Dogs to Animal Drive. In May, we signed a contract and we are right now recording the album.

DR:  What made you change the name of the band?

DJ:  I wanted to remove the "Dino and...".  I wanted it to be a band. The guys in the band are such great guys and great musicians - I really wanted this to be a band, not "Dino and them". I also didn't like the Mad Dogs name; in my opinion it sounds like a 70s style band and we felt that Animal Drive was a better fit for what we do.

DR:  How long has the band been together?

DJ:  I have been playing with the bass player and one guitarist since 2012. Our drummer came into the band in 2014 and our newest guitarist joined us in 2015. So, this lineup came together from 2012 to 2015.

DR:  Who writes the music for this new album?

DJ:  I write all of the music and all of the lyrics.  I also create the arrangements until we start rehearsing and we change things as a band.

DR:  What sort of subjects do you touch on lyrically?

DJ:  Most of my songs are very deep lyrically.  We will have eleven songs on this album; three of them ballads and eight of them heavy.  The songs are about real life, fears, pain.  Many of them true life stories that I can connect with. There are two love songs that are very personal to me on the album also. There are also two songs that we recorded that did make it onto the album.  They are very progressive and possibly not right for this release so we are saving them for the next one.

DR:  Earlier you had mentioned songs like "Walk on the Other Side" and "Bad to the Bone" that you perform live and even released music videos for them.  Will those or any other songs that you have been playing be on the new album?

DJ:  No. Frontiers loved the music but they asked for an album of all new material. What you hear on the promotional video from Frontiers are demo versions of three of the new songs that will be on the album: "Had Enough", "Time Machine", and "Power of Life".

DR:  When Animal Drive performs live, you often throw in some cover songs.

DJ:  We play Deep Purple's "Burn" at every show we do.  But - we do the Whitesnake version of it. Whitesnake did a pretty impressive version on their 2004 Live...In the Still of the Night DVD.  We all love their version of it and since Whitesnake is our band's biggest influence, we wanted to include this in all of our concerts.

DR:  I know you are taking a break from the studio to do this interview.  How is the recording process going so far?

DJ:  It's going great. I finished up some keyboards today. Tomorrow I go back in and record some more vocals.  I then will be taking a bit of a break, as we have been on this for two months straight.  We are just about done the first version of the album, then back in to record new vocals and then mixing and mastering.

DR:  Does this album have a name yet? And any idea for a release date?

DJ:  I have an idea for a name, but we haven't discussed it yet with management or the record company, so can't say quite yet. As for when it comes out, right now I expect a single to come out in December while I am on tour with TSO and the album should be out by March 2018.

DR:  Animal Drive is the first rock band from Croatia to sign to a major record label. That has to be a pretty special feeling?

 Well previously there was Croation singer Michael Matijevic. He was the lead singer of Steelheart and also sang the songs along with Jeff Scott Soto in the movie Rock Star. Also, the bassist from Nirvana is natively Croatian.  So there have been a few.  We have a completely different mentality about music in Croatia and I am happy that what I do is making its way to America and other parts of the world. In my country, you can do nothing with music like this. I am so grateful to the opportunities from both Frontiers and TSO because these are my way out to get my music heard.

DR:  You mentioned TSO a couple of times. How did you first get on TSO's radar? I understand that they heard you singing Queen's "The Show Must Go On".  True?
Dino Jelusic with TSO, Kansas City, MO 2016
Photo Courtesy Carolyn Handy

DJ:  That is what I heard too.  They heard me singing "The Show Must Go On" which I have sung over the years. They sent me the Savatage song "Handful of Rain" to record and send back to them. After they heard that, they sent me one Savatage song and six TSO songs to work on and they flew me to Florida.  After three days of working on them with [Talent Coordinator] Danielle [Sample] in the studio, I met Paul O'Neill. I really enjoyed working with him in the studio. He sat and talked with me about the story behind "Handful of Rain" for like an hour. He wanted me to go back to 1994 when that song came out and picture the streets, the dark, the wine that is drying out on the floor. After that, he had me sing it again. When the song started, I started having chills because it had a completely different meaning to me. After I sang it and got the deep meaning out of it, Paul said, "That's it" because I understood the song now and sang it better.

DR:  Were you already familiar with Savatage or TSO before you got the call?

DJ:  Sure.  I knew both. I knew of how big TSO was and that Soto is in there, Al Pitrelli is in there, and Russell Allen of course.  Also, Kelly Keeling used to sing for them and Alex Sklolnick used to play guitar for them, so I knew how huge this was. Also, a good friend of mine who played guitars on "Walk on the Other Side" had auditioned for TSO.

DR:  How long did it take before you found out that you had passed the audition?  With two male vocalist slots open, I understand that they auditioned quite a few singers.

DJ:  I could tell that they liked what I did when I was at the audition, but I had to wait to find out. About two months before the start of the tour, I found out that it was me and Mats Levén that made it as the new guys.

DR:  For the 2016 tour, you sang "Christmas Dreams". Was that hashed out in the rehearsals?

DJ:  Yes. I did not know before that, but they try different singers on different songs and I was given "Christmas Dreams" because Paul thought I should be the storyteller of that song.

DR:  Did you get a lot of direction from Paul on how he wanted to sound and perform that song?

DJ:  He wanted the storytelling to come through.  There is no place for any vocal exhibitions or doing anything that broke from the character. All of the singers are characters in his story. TSO is Paul's vision and we are here to fulfill that story.

DR:  You came to TSO with so much experience of performing at big festivals and TV competitions and tours.  Were you nervous at all to tour with TSO?

DJ:  I was nervous in the beginning.  My first day at rehearsals, I am in the same room as many singers and musicians that I grew up listening to. After a few days, it all becomes normal. You go out to the bar with Soto and talk about his Malmsteen days, and then come back to the hotel to see Joel Hoekstra from Whitesnake there.  They are all just normal guys and good people and we really became close.  I love those guys. But to answer your question, Yes, I was nervous.  The first time I go out and sing for TSO being one of the new guys, with the audience watching and Paul watching - there is a some pressure there.  But by the end of the tour, I had found what I was searching for in those first few stage appearances.

DR:  Do you find the tour challenging, with so many days where two Shows are performed?

DJ:  It is a challenging tour.  Some people will say, "Oh you only sing one song", but I also sing backing vocals for many of the songs. I sang backings for "Who I Am", "Lost Christmas Eve", "This Christmas Day", "Music Box Blues, "What Child is This", and "Carmina Burana".  So it can be exhausting after two shows, we are happy to sleep in that tour bus.
Dino Jelusic with TSO, Kansas City, MO 2016
Photo Courtesy Carolyn Handy

I will tell you this, after coming back from the TSO tour and doing my band again, I found that some things became so much easier to me.  For example, I found some of the range that I couldn't hit before.

DR:   I understand that you were the singer on the Free and Bad Company songs that Paul Rodgers was planning on singing as you and the TSO band rehearsed them in the weeks leading up to his guest appearance.

DJ:  That was unreal.  They were hiding from us who would be the special guest on the tour.  At one point, Al Pitrelli told me that the guest is one of his five favorite vocalists.  So a few days later, I asked him to tell me his favorite vocalists. He named them and I started thinking and eliminating and I think I knew at that point it was Paul Rodgers. Finally, Al asked me if I knew the lyrics to "Can't Get Enough" and "All Right Now" and I said, "Of Course!" and I was Paul Rodgers for five or six rehearsals.

It was really something special having him there. He still looks great, moves great, and his voice is still clean like he is 25 years old. And meeting him I found out what a genuinely nice and generous man he is. Meeting him and Paul O'Neill really made me rethink what the goal is in being a rock star.  Paul O'Neill was very serious and always helped people. He did some things on tour, which will stay private, which made all of us singers happy and really inspired us.

DR:  This has been a tragic year within the TSO ranks with the deaths of Paul O'Neill and Dave Z. Can you talk about your relationship with both of them? I know you have only been with TSO for one season thus far, but any special memories that you could share?

DJ:  When Paul passed away, I was out of function for five days.  I started bringing back some memories - I was looking at this old American Silver Dollar that he gave me to carry for luck when I auditioned. He has done so much for TSO and for people like me, so now I appreciate him a thousand times more. During the auditions, he tried me out on a new track which was to be on a new TSO album. It was this country-blues song that he wrote in 1978 that he has tried with so many singers over the years and I got it! The irony is that I was in the airport, on my way to Tampa, to record that song when Paul O'Neill died.

With Dave Z, I got to know him in the rehearsals in Council Bluffs. We would have lunch together and I started training with him. He was so talented - he could sing, he could play, he could dance like Michael Jackson. And he was so funny - he was like a big child. After the TSO tour, I did a guest appearance with Jeff Scott Soto in Budapest; we did "Stand Up and Shout" together and Dave was Jeff's bass player.  I did some crazy harmonies on the chorus and when Jeff sang the verse, Dave came to me and told me how much I killed it on the harmonies.  He was so supportive all of the time. I remember our last conversation after that show - he was telling me how excited he was to start rehearsing with Adrenaline Mob and I told him that I have some connections with a big festival in Croatia and I wanted to see him and the band perform over here.  I really wish I could have been at his memorial - I just wasn't able to right now.

DR:  We have talked a lot about Animal Drive and TSO. Over the last couple of years, bands like Chaos Addict, The Ralph and Stone Leaders have all released albums with you on vocals or keys.  Are you still involved with any of these?

DJ:  I was involved in these bands but when I signed the contract with Frontiers, they wanted me to focus 100% on my band.  This is really good advice as you can't grow five bands at once and expect them all to be big. With Chaos Addict, I have worked with them for two years. I played live with them a lot and I sang a cover of Toto's "I Will Remember" for their debut album.

With The Ralph, I did the whole album, which came out in February 2017.  I wrote most of the lyrics for that album and sang lead.  With The Stone Leaders, I came into it that later as they needed vocals and keyboards.  Though I wasn't involved in the writing, I played all of the keyboard parts and solos and vocal melodies and I sing lead on "Box of Time". We recorded the album in 2015 and it is just now coming out. It features John Macaluso on drums, who is one of the greatest drummers in the world. We had a great time recording that album.

DR: We have talked so much about your music career. Lets wrap this up by having you tell me what you do for fun – what do you do when not performing?

DJ:  You know what I do?  Table Tennis! A lot.  I had to choose between singing and Table Tennis at one point. When I was touring last year with TSO, they have a table and the guys from the crew play Table Tennis. I started playing with them and started winning all of the time.  They asked me who I was because they had never seen me before - they thought I was a Table Tennis coach in disguise. [Laughs]  It definitely is one of my passions.

DR:  Dino, thanks so much and I will let you get back to the studio now.

DJ:  Thank You!  See you on the road!

For more information:

Dino Jelusić:

Animal Drive:

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Conversation with Val Vigoda

Val Vigoda, the star of the current off-Broadway smash musical Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, has carved out quite a remarkable, uncommon musical career. This pioneering singer/songwriter, armed with her 6-string Viper violin, spent close to two decades with her band mates in the theatrical pop/rock trio GrooveLily, creating album after album of smart pop music and theater productions. Along the way, Val also scored arena-touring gigs with Cyndi Lauper and Joe Jackson. When “rock theater” juggernaut Trans-Siberian Orchestra first split into two touring casts, Vigoda secured the role of Concertmaster of the West Coast troupe. After a recent split with her longtime husband and musical partner, along with GrooveLily going on hiatus, Val has come out swinging. She recently released her empowering new live-looping solo album, joined up with the innovative Electrify Your Strings music education program and has landed in New York with her long-in-development epic musical adventure about Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. While Val points out how inspirational Shackleton was on his voyage, we learn here how inspiring Val herself is. In this in-depth chat, we touch on all of that and more.

Dan Roth: How did you come to choose the violin as your instrument of choice?

Val Vigoda: I have music in my family going back many generations. My grandfather was a cantor and my Dad was a wonderful jazz pianist. From the time I could walk, I was sitting on the piano bench with my Dad and starting to read music. By the time I got to elementary school, I wanted to play an instrument and I really wanted to learn the trumpet. I had just lost my baby teeth so they wanted me to wait a year for the trumpet, but they needed violinists in the orchestra. Instead of waiting a year, I decided to go with the violin and I fell in love with it. I am so glad that I did not go with my original instinct to play the trumpet because I would never be able to do what I do today.

DR: Who has inspired you musically along the way?

VV:  From the classical side of the instrument - Nathan Milstein, Jascha Heifetz, Itzhak Perlman, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Joshua Bell, my teachers Ed Johonnott and Danny Heifetz. As far as violinists from outside the classical realm, musicians like Mark Wood, Joe Deninzon, Julie Lyonne Lieberman, Christian Howes, and so many others...all really joyful players using the instrument in such diverse and creative ways.

DR: I had read that it took you a decade or so to rid yourself of the "violin face". What did you mean by that?

VV: Ah, the "violin face"! We are taught as classical string players in such a fear-based way. (And to be clear, I’m not referring here to my specific teachers, but the overall gestalt of classical learning.) It is all about precision and hitting that right note and God forbid you tap your foot. As students, we are taught to practice putting our fingers in the correct place on this weird instrument that is very unnatural and counter-intuitive -- and then, if you get really good, you get to go play for the “jury.” (!) I remember playing for the jury and I couldn't stop my knees from shaking, being so concerned with how they would grade me. It was really the opposite of what music should be about.

I found that I could not smile and concentrate on playing at the same time. I looked like I was stern, almost angry when I played. It was not until I started getting into bands and playing music that wasn't classical that people started to notice and would tell me that I looked like I was not having fun. It was a physical reflex - I was so used to concentrating on playing correctly, with a certain grimness associated with that, that it took me a long time to relax, enjoy and re-engage with the simple joy of playing music.

DR: You are also that rare violinist that sings lead as well. Since you do both beautifully, tell me about that journey - did that come naturally? What are the challenges?

VV: Well thank you for those kind words. For most of my early life, singing and playing the violin were two very separate activities for me. I have always been a singer; I think it probably came from my grandfather (a renowned cantor with a gorgeous tenor voice). I was always in choirs, and in college I was in an a cappella group. When I was eight years old, I started playing the violin and got serious about it pretty fast. I got involved in chamber groups and orchestras. It wasn't until I was a teenager and started writing songs that I even thought about combining these two skills. 

When I first tried to do it, it felt like my brain was being split apart in this incredibly uncomfortable way. Just singing one note and playing that same note at the same time was so difficult and very unnatural. One night at The Bitter End, I saw Allison Cornell sing backups and play the violin with Rachael Sage. It was my first time seeing someone multi-task like that and it really inspired me. I spent a couple of years making my brain hurt, trying to sing and play at the same time. After a while, I could sing while playing a simple part on the violin, Over the years, it's just gotten easier and easier to the point where it now feels natural to me and I can do different counter-meters and odd rhythms and different kinds of harmonies with myself.

The biggest breakthrough for me on this journey was finding the Viper, which is designed and built by Mark Wood.  Playing a violin that has a chin rest means having your neck area squashed a bit. That meant to me that either the singing suffered or the playing suffered. As soon as I discovered that I could have this different design with the harness and the freeing nature of the way that the Viper is designed, it really changed my world. I could sing better, I could play better.

DR: It really seems like the perfect instrument for what you do. I have seen it noted that you were the first female Viper player. Do you like that pioneering moniker?

VV: Absolutely! I was Mark's first female client and I am honored to hold that distinction. That instrument really has defined what I do going forward.

DR: How many strings does your Viper have? And do you enjoy the extended range?

VV: It has six strings and Yes! I love having those fifth and sixth strings. For so long, as a member of GrooveLily, it was mostly just the three of us - keyboard, drums, and electric violin. So when performing we had to fill up as much musical space as we could, and having that low C and low F string for power chords and rhythm-guitar-esque sounds while I am singing is just perfect. It really helped fill out our sound and I love being able to roll full arpeggios.

DR: When you compose songs, do you write them on a piano or on the violin?

VV: Both; it depends on the song. I do more and more on the violin - I have had it for so long and I can think more chordally and harmonically on the instrument than I used to be able to. I used to always write on a keyboard first and then try and translate it to the violin, which was a bit of an unwieldy process.

DR: When you write, are you more lyric-minded or music-driven?

VV:  I am such a verbal person. I almost always will start with the meaning, the content, the lyrics and then the music. For many years, I was collaborating with my "wasband" [Laughs] and we used to say that our skill sets were almost like a graph. I think in terms of melody and words (linear, X-axis) and he is a "chord" person, thinking harmonically (vertical, Y-axis). Together we worked very well that way. For a time, we were incredibly prolific; we were churning out writing assignments as quickly as possible and we found that my verbal facility and his harmonic facility made for a fast, efficient way of composing. I would be being more of a lyricist for a time, while he stuck to the music. It is only lately that I am finding my way back to writing more music again.

DR: In May of 1994, you released your first album, Inhabit My Heart, with the single "Raindance". This was before you had formed GrooveLily and before your Viper even?

Raindance - Music Video

VV: Yes, though we did eventually re-brand it as a GrooveLily album and we as a group would perform some songs from it in concert.

DR: From there you formed the trio, GrooveLily, with whom you released ten or so albums. Where did the name come from?

VV: When I was thinking of band names, I knew I wanted one word and I wanted that word to represent what we were about, which was the combination of rhythm and beauty. This image of a dancing flower came into my head which is a GrooveLily! I had a friend who is an artist and I asked him to draw that and he came up with our logo. It was this flower with a blossoming top and then petals and stem akimbo, which I loved.

If anyone is looking to name their band, don't name it something that is hard to say or hard to pronounce or hard to spell. [Laughs] That was a big issue.

DR: Most artists aren't crazy about having their music labeled or put into a defining category, but it does become necessary to help sell and promote the band. GrooveLily, at least in the first few albums, was difficult to categorize. You were playing both the college circuit and folk festivals with this unique instrument lineup playing a jazzy, pop, smart blend of pop music with an occasional theatrical feel as well. How did you see the band? What was GrooveLily about?

Breathe-In Breathe-Out (2002)

VV: That's a really good question. We always had a lot of trouble with this. We were always a theatrical pop/rock trio. We always had a branding and marketing problem. We would try to explain our sound by saying ridiculous things like: if Steely Dan, Paula Cole and Bruce Hornsby got stuck in an elevator together and they had a baby that played the violin... [Laughs] I always thought of us a combination of head and heart; smart, well-crafted songs that are real. We always got the same reaction from the industry, which was "This is interesting, this is original, this is refreshing, I would love to have this music in my library, I don't know how to describe it, I can't sell this." [Laughs]

DR: The band was unique in being a violin/keyboard/drums trio. Did you ever think about expanding the sound with other instruments?

VV: We did. For a while, we became a 5-piece band with guitar and bass. It was great but it was also expensive, quixotic and great fun. [Laughs] The violin can be a rock instrument but there is something about a guitar that cannot be replaced. I loved adding the sound of a guitar and bass to fill it out but I also really liked us as a trio.

DR: There definitely was a noticeable shift in what GrooveLily was doing in their first five or six releases and the release of Striking 12: The New GrooveLily Musical in 2004.

VV:  We tried being a square peg in a round hole for years when we were trying to make it in the "music industry". We kept trying to do things that were radio-friendly and come up with that elusive hit song. We tried to smooth out our rough edges. We were quirky as hell. We had three lead singers from three different backgrounds. I came from a classical background and listening to singer-songwriters, Brendan came from the world of ‘80s pop and musical theater, and Gene was a jazz drummer. There was no other band for us to follow or say, "We want to be just like them" [Laughs] It wasn't until we did what seemed like a thousand unsuccessful showcases for record labels that we took what they said to heart. We would always hear, "You are a little too theatrical. You sound like Broadway." so we finally decide to treat that as a feature instead of a bug. To make that turn into the world of theater was what made our career take off. When we wrote Striking 12, we knew we had found our niche. 

The timing was such that the trend to have musician-actors hadn't happened yet. We were really pioneers in that way. The John Doyle production of Sweeney Todd hadn't happened yet, for instance. When we showcased our Striking 12 show in 2004 at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, it was a bit of a shock for everyone. We came out on stage to our violin and keyboard and drum set in front of this audience filled with all of these New York and regional theater movers and shakers and they were waiting for the actors to come out. We proceeded to do the whole thing ourselves. We were literally swamped with offers and that changed our lives. We were not only gaining notoriety in the theater world but also as writers for others.

Caution to the Wind (2005)

DR: The band continued in that musical theater world, creating A Little Midsummer Night's Music, Sleeping Beauty Wakes, and Wheelhouse. Looking back, do you have a favorite album that really still resonates with you?

VV: Tough question. I feel like Striking 12 is when we let go of all of the anxiety and said, "This is who we are." For that reason, I love that record. I love looking back at the early stuff and finding the seeds of what we were able to do later. As far as quality of songs and recording, I would have to pick the Sleeping Beauty Wakes album.

DR: Is GrooveLily on hiatus? What is its status?

VV: We are definitely on a hiatus right now and I do not know if there will ever be a reunion. Brendan has said he is not interested in performing anymore.Gene and I have been talking about doing something together. Here is my dream: Striking 12. 2018. The 12th anniversary of being on Off-Broadway. Me, Gene, Ben Folds.

DR: Does Ben Folds know about this dream?

VV: No. [Laughs] That's why I'm putting it out there.

DR: In the late '90s, in addition to GrooveLily, you were touring arenas with Cyndi Lauper and Joe Jackson.

VV:  Playing with both of them were such fantastic and different experiences. With Cyndi, it was really trial by fire. My first performance with her was live on a big-time morning drive radio show here in New York City and I was playing mandolin for the first time. I didn't even have my Viper. I was there with this strange instrument playing live [Laughs]

Cyndi is so great about having female musicians in her band and really championing them. I got that gig after someone that worked for her saw me at a GrooveLily showcase and they called me because they were looking for a violinist/vocalist. It was my first time playing arenas; we opened for Tina Turner on one tour and then a couple years later we were opening for Cher.

Cyndi Lauper performance with Val Vigoda (1997)

I toured with Joe Jackson in 1998 and 1999, in between the two Cyndi Lauper tours. He was touring his Heaven and Hell album that Sony Classical released. That same violinist that I mentioned earlier that I had seen at the Bitter End playing with Rachael Sage all those years ago was now Joe's violinist but she couldn't do this tour. Joe flew to New Orleans to see the Cyndi Lauper concert and auditioned me afterwards. It was a real departure from what he had done before. For the tour it was him, Elise Morris on keys and me on violin and vocals. So in addition to all of great rock and roll songs that he is known for, we were also doing this classical song cycle.

DR: On each of those tours with Lauper and Jackson, many of their classic songs were presented in a different way. Did you have some input in to how you would be playing them at all?

VV: Somewhat, yes. Both of them were interested in re-imagining the songs that they had played thousands of times.

DR: Let's chat a bit about your time with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. After an initial tour in 1999, they split into two touring groups in 2000. Mark Wood was the original and founding String Master and went to the East touring group after they split into two. You took on that role with the West touring group for the 2000 and 2001 tours. Tell me how you became part of this.

VV:  Mark Wood told them that he had just the right person for the West Coast cast and here she is. There was no audition. I was hired, given the music to learn and told where to show up for rehearsals. Boom.

DR: Were you familiar with TSO before this?

VV: I had actually played in the "local strings" section when they played the Beacon Theater in 1999.

DR: Did you work with Mark at all during the rehearsals?

VV: A little bit. I was mostly on my own. I had the music and I really concentrated on that so I would be ready by the time we got the first string section that I would have to lead. I remember the tours were a really grueling routine though for the concertmaster. I was given two hours to rehearse each string section, for the two-hour-and-twenty-minute Show! And then part of the gig with TSO is the autograph line and that is like a whole other gig. [Laughs] It was 90 minutes or so of signing and talking with fans. After that we would finally get back on the bus, drive overnight and then be at our next gig in the morning. I would always make a point of hitting a gym first thing - even if it was just for six minutes so I could work out a bit and move. Then it would be on to the two hours with the string section, then the show, then the autograph line. Rinse and repeat. [Laughs]

DR: With TSO having been around for so long now, I think most string players that are interested in playing at their Shows have a good idea what they are getting into.

VV: These people did not. [Laughs]

DR: 2000 was the first "West Coast" TSO tour so they were hitting areas outside of the East for the very first time. Were you getting a lot of classically-trained musicians?

VV:  All classically trained. And they varied widely in their ability to pick up music quickly. My favorite group of all were technically possibly the least-skilled players that we had hired for the tours but they were so wonderful - I don't want to say anything bad about them. I am talking about the El Paso string players who were almost all family and they were so happy to be there. They had the best attitude and were joyful; they did not have "violin face"[Laughs] They were so excited to be part of the Show and they were an absolute pleasure to work with. They did not hit their high D's, I didn't even care because they were so joyful. Then you go to big cities like Chicago or Minneapolis-St. Paul where you are drawing on musicians from major orchestras and some of those players who were technically amazing were such a drag.

I spent a lot of time in the rehearsals getting the players used to working in this new environment. I worked with them on getting them not to put their violin on their knees. Classical violinists aren't used to working with amps and mics and feedback. Often they would play and then at a rest, place their violin right in front of the speaker causing terrible feedback. Also, the mic attached to the instrument would pick up their breathing, which we would have to work on.

I am so glad that I had the opportunity to have that gig. It was great for practicing, flexibility and leadership skills. It was also a great help in developing my stage presence; jumping on things, waving my bow around and feeding off of all that rock energy. The whole job as their concertmaster is never-ending, just constant motion.

DR: Did you get much direction during your time on how they wanted you to look or perform?

VV: Oh no. I just played, ran around the stage, jumped on things, waved my bow around and riled people up. [Laughs] It was a great time, especially on songs like "Mozart". I basically followed Mark's lead on what he was doing with the East group.

DR: I’ve interviewed other performers from those early TSO casts and many of them – particularly on the West – have mentioned that those early tours had more of an emphasis on their performance and personality and chemistry with the audience rather than the effects and spectacle that is there today. I have heard fun stories of rubber chickens, silly string and much more on stage. Can you speak to that?

VV: Oh yeah. It was so much fun touring with those guys. I remember vocalist Kay Story was singing that heartfelt Stevie Nicks song "Landslide" and they would torment her trying to get her to break character, One night, I think it was a little toy mouse on a string that was creeping along the stage and Kay kneels down and starts petting it, completely unfazed; it was awesome. [Laughs] There were so many pranks being played. They were such a wonderful group of people but I was somewhat apart from them because I was always running off to do rehearsals with the strings.

I had such a great time. I had never before really had the experience of almost commanding the audience to applaud, gesturing in that almost-pompous way to the audience while performing. [Laughs] It was a lot of fun.  Mark was great at that because he naturally does it without being pompous.

DR: The cast was really a melting pot – metal rockers, Broadway performers, journeyman rockers. Anyone you really connected with?

VV: Oh sure. Malcolm Gold who was the bassist on the 2001 tour later toured with GrooveLily when we went to a 5-piece. John Margolis wound up being my neighbor in NYC and we did a gig together. So many great people - I loved Sophia Ramos - she is just an amazing, fierce vocalist. And of course Michael Lanning, Paul Morris, Kay Story, Damon LaScot, Rebecca Simon, and I loved touring with Al Pitrelli and Jane Mangini. Everyone on the bus was just so much fun.

DR: So after the 2001 tour, you were gone from the TSO stage.

VV: Yes, though they did ask me back to tour the next year. I will always be grateful to TSO though - because it was around this time, as I mentioned earlier, that we, as GrooveLily, decided as a band to move into more of a theatrical mode and TSO was the inspiration for us to write our own holiday concert with a story, Striking 12!

DR: Over the last few years, there has been a bit of a "Val Vigoda Renaissance" – The Ernest Shackleton Loves Me musical, your new solo album Just Getting Good, and your recent work with Mark Wood's Electrify Your Strings! music program. What prompted this flurry of activity?

VV: It's so interesting. Both Ernest Shackleton Loves Me and Just Getting Good were precipitated by the fact that I love performing so much and I get such energy and exhilaration from it. Brendan, who was my collaborator for so long, couldn't care less if he ever steps on to a stage again. He much prefers now to be behind the scenes, writing and arranging. Musicals can take a long time to ripen; we have been working on Shackleton since 2009. This all came about with us trying to write something together where I would perform and he wouldn't have to.

We had just seen this incredible museum exhibit about British Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton that really inspired us. Shackleton has to be one of the most inspiring, optimistic heroes ever. That exhibit just blew me away and really stuck with me. We then got the opportunity to write something for me with the amazing playwright Joe DiPietro. Joe asked, "What do you want to write about?" . I told him that we had seen several one-person shows that were autobiographical and I really didn't want to do that. I remember telling him, "I want to do something big, something epic and adventurous, I don’t know, like, Ernest Shackleton!" [Laughs] We told Joe the saga of Shackleton's trip to Antarctica as well as the story of how he insisted that this 14-pound banjo be carried along their trek and be used to keep up the spirits of his men. Joe came back to us with an outline of a one-person show called Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.

DR: Was it similar to where you are at with it today?

VV: In a way. We brought a director in and we did a read-through. The director liked it but said, "You are singing about Ernest Shackleton. You're telling us the story of Shackleton. Where is he?"  We realized that this really needed to be a two-person show and that's when things really took off. One of the big aspects of the show was that my character is a modern composer that plays electric violin, very much like me [Laughs], and this character was using live looping. Again, musicals take a really long time. We started this in 2009 and here we are in 2017 finally hitting New York. While we were waiting for this to get produced, we decided to use this looping technology that we were learning to create something that we could be in charge of, so Just Getting Good was something that we created together as well. The themes of both projects are all about spreading your wings as a self-reliant, empowered, courageous human being. Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is really a feminist manifesto of hope, optimism and not relying on others. So these themes were all there as we created them together, but now that both are seeing the light of day and Brendan and I are no longer together, it sort of all makes sense in hindsight.

DR: I find it interesting that you had this theme, particularly on Just Getting Good. It is such an empowering album lyrically. The title track speaks of “just getting good” and standing your ground. “If You Believe” talks about doing what you love and believing in who you are. “Level Up” talks about overcoming feeling alone and afraid. “Larger Than Life” talks about helping yourself and leaving the past behind.

VV:  All of the songs on this album are in alignment with that theme.

DR: Was it challenging to start working without a band?

VV: Hugely challenging. It was the same "My brain is coming apart" feeling that I had long ago when I first tried to sing and play the violin at the same time. [Laughs] For such a long time, I was one who did not embrace technology, but for performing with live looping I dived in. It was a steep learning curve but eventually it got easier and I became more comfortable with it all. I keep a picture hanging up for inspiration; it is a woman embracing a man who is entirely made up of images from the Ableton Live music production software. It reminds me of falling in love with technology and that's what I have been doing for the past few years. It's really all about planning and multi-tasking and is another approach to creating music.

DR: Do you rely on a lot of foot pedals when performing this way?

VV: Yes, mostly as navigational pedals. The patch changes are in the computer so it does involve some pre-planning.

DR: This album contains some of your songs from your career but here in fresh new arrangements. For instance, I noticed that you re-did "If You Believe" which is a song that you wrote for one of the Tinkerbell movies and "Thaw" which was on an older GrooveLily album. How did you pick which to tackle?

VV: I looked at many of the songs that had become favorites in their new arrangements over the past five years. I had done a version of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" early on and that didn't quite make the cut because the arrangement was not that interesting. I did go with "Thaw" which you mentioned but it was a new arrangement that I put together in memory of my mom. I mashed it up with "Irish Lullaby" which she used to sing to me. Thaw is such a meaningful song to me and I feel like adding in the "Irish Lullaby" portion has made it even better.

But we chose songs that thematically were in alignment. We wrote "Just Getting Good" and that was the name of this concept so they had to fit. This was recorded in concert and the concert was actually longer but we discarded a couple songs before we arrived at the eleven on the album.

DR:  Another interesting song choice is a song that dates back to the 1850’s: “Hard Times Come No More”.

VV:  That is just a beautiful song that was on our radar for a while. Eastmountainsouth does a great version of it as does James Taylor.  My version has Brendan's arrangement and has some beautiful reharmonizations in it that I love.

DR:  Let's talk a bit more about your musical, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me which you are now starring in at the Tony Kiser Theatre here in New York. You mentioned earlier that it has been in the works since 2009?

VV:  It was first commissioned by TheatreWorks in Palo Alto and La Jolla Playhouse came on board as well. It has gone through readings, several workshops, three developmental productions and here we are finally in New York!

DR:  Do you enjoy acting along with playing, singing and composing?

VV:  I love it!! I used to have a fear of it because I am not necessarily a trained actor. But really acting is really just an extension of communicating with your audience, and it’s all about presence. I have been taking some Meisner classes in Seattle which have been super fun.

DR:  Has the show's story changed at all for this New York run?

VV:  There have been some tweaks along the way, and yes, for those that have seen any of the prior productions, there are some changes that you will pick up on. I’d say it’s 30% different from our last production. We’ve been doing a lot of work over the past month!!

DR:  I don't want to spoil it for anyone that has not yet seen it, but does Shackleton still make his entrance to the stage in the same fashion as the 2015 New Jersey production?

VV:  He does! [Laughs] I think it is one of the great musical theater entrances!

DR:  You are playing a Viper on stage. There is a second Viper on stage during the show. Is that a backup?

VV:  I do play both of them in the show, mainly for logistical reasons. One is upstage and one is downstage. I use one for the opening number and the other for the rest of the show. Superstitiously, I always have two with me though. When Striking 12 opened Off-Broadway, during opening night with all of the press there, I was using one but I had a second one on the stage purely as set dressing because my director liked the look of it.  In the middle of the show, in the midst of the most exposed moment as I was soloing, the violin stopped working. There was complete silence on stage as I was mentally running through what could have happened - volume, battery - and I was trying not to show in my face what was happening. I very calmly walked over, grabbed the other violin and started playing. It had turned out that a piece of solder had come loose and there was no way that I would have been able to continue on. That was a life-changing, career-defining evening. We ended up with rave reviews from the New York Times and it all worked out well, but now having two just makes me feel better.[Laughs]

DR:  Similarly to your past work, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is uniquely tailored to you and your talents. Striking 12 certainly has continued on with various casts performing it. Can you see Shackleton without you?

VV:  We totally want to license the show and we will. There are definitely ways to do that which we are going to explore. We have already seen that the show can go on without me as we had the wonderful Angel Desai step into the role for some shows during the New Jersey run. We have also discussed making the lead character of Kat not necessarily be an electric violinist. She would still be a musician but maybe she plays a different instrument. At the moment, there are some very specific gestures and dialogue moments that are about the spark that comes from the electric violin but those could be adapted if need be. But at the moment, we are just making the show as good as it can be with me on the Viper.

DR:  Tell me about your co-star Wade McCollum. He has been in this musical with you for some time? Do you enjoy working together?  Was he been the only person to play Shackleton so far?

VV:  I love Wade! He is not the first to play that role though. The first actor to play Shackleton was Will Swenson who is a fantastic Broadway star (he did an early reading with us). I had met Wade through our work with Disney. We had written Toy Story The Musical and Wade was our first Woody. When the opportunity came up for Shackleton, we connected again. He is such an inspirational, buoyant person and perfect for this role.

DR:  The story of the real-life Shackleton was so resilient and inspirational and I feel like in the musical, Kat is inspired by him as much as he is inspired by her music and it ultimately is a love story. How would you describe this to someone who has not yet seen it?

VV:  It's an adventure love story across a century of time. She finds self-reliance and hope and optimism from him and realizes that she can be "Shackleton" for her son. She doesn't have to settle and she doesn't have to be beholden to someone who doesn't respect her and that she can do this on her own.

DR:  What kind of audiences have you been seeing? Besides fans of musicals, have you captured the interest of history fans as well?

VV:  We started the show in Seattle and we found that not only were we getting fans of tech and games, but also Coast Guard members and people on ice-breaking ships! We are even doing an event at The Explorers Club where they have Shackleton's original sextant and some of his family are going to Skype in for it. So we have been seeing the Shackleton people, the gaming people, the electric violin fans, fans of musicals.

DR:  You had quite an active fan base from your GrooveLily days called the Petal Pushers.

VV:  Yes! And I have seen many of them at these shows as it has developed. It is very heartening to find that what I am doing now is still resonating with them as much as GrooveLily did. Many of them continue to be in my world, not only as fans but also as friends.

DR:  A couple of years ago you started working with Mark Wood at his Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp and in his Electrify Your Strings! program. What led you to reconnecting with Mark?

VV:  I did stay in touch with Mark over the years but not very actively until two years ago. I had some upheaval going on in my life and I finally was looking up and out again,. It is very easy when you are married to your collaborator to be sort of hermetically sealed while working and not be as connected to the other people in your professional sphere as much. I realized that I was not part of the electric violin community and I reached out to Mark and Laura [Kaye] and asked if I could just come visit their Rock Orchestra Camp and immerse myself in that community. I went there just as a 'camper' and met all of these wonderful musicians there to learn and the talented faculty that they have.  Afterwards, Mark brought me on board for his Electrify Your Strings! music programs and as a faculty member for the camp.
Val Vigoda at the Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp Music Festival 2016
Photo Courtesy of Heather Cobb Isbell

DR:  At his camp, each of the faculty members focuses on different aspects while teaching. What is in your "curriculum"?

VV:   I love working with students, particularly there where they are so eager. I work with them a lot on presence, improv and full engagement. I play some theater games with them and we break out of that fearful stance - that "violin face". We reconnect with the joy of doing what we do. Simultaneous singing and playing, lyric writing...we get to do a lot over a short period of time!

DR:  You have so much going in your life right now, is there anything that you still have your sights set on?

VV:  Even though it has been eight years in the making, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is such a huge passion project for me and is just hitting New York now. That is my focus for the moment. and who knows what its future may be? Once it is open and off the ground, I am adding on a project in the world of motivational speaking. It will include some of my work with Just Getting Good, some of what I present in Electrify Your Strings. It’s all about peak aliveness. I hope to incorporate stories from Shackleton, stories from my Army training, working with Cyndi Lauper - all things that have brought me to where I am today.

DR:  Sounds wonderful! Thanks so much for taking the time today.

VV:  My pleasure!

For more information:

Val Vigoda

Val Vigoda Twitter:

Val Vigoda YouTube Channel:

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me:


Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp:

Electrify Your Strings: